The featheriest beauty on Luna’s fifth long player is an ode to “The Old Fashioned Way,” so let’s get this clear right off the bat: for Dean Wareham and company, the old fashioned ideal is the Velvet Underground at its most sedate. Although Wareham’s first band, the late, much lamented Galaxie 500, covered “Here She Comes Now” for a talisman, his project has always been extending the atmospheric insinuations of “Pale Blue Eyes.”
By this point in his decade-plus career, Wareham has long since exhausted the concept behind the extrapolation. But here he compensates nobly by writing some of his most endearing tunes since the G500 days: “Dear Diary,” “Math Wiz” and the unfortunately titled “Superfreaky Memories” incorporate the casual bounce that Luna has only toyed with in the past. The accompanying great atmospheric ditties, “The Old Fashioned Way” and its magisterial partner “Seven Steps to Satan,” are icing on the cake, then, making the first half of the album far more ravishing than any bunch of pasty college-rockers have a right to be.
It’s not an embarrassment of riches, though: Days sputters near the end, resorting to gimmick (German vocals on “The Slow Song,” lounge phrasings on “U.S. Out of My Pants!”) and pointlessly closing with a cover of “Sweet Child of Mine.” Wareham, suffice it to say, is better off pretending he’s Lou Reed than Sheryl Crow. Then again, who isn’t?
Unrest, Malcolm X Park and Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation
Similarly pasty suburban bedroom-poppers Unrest had a broader devotional palette: Teen Beat’s reissues of the long out-of-print Malcolm X Park (1988) and Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation (1990) show a couple of kids dreaming themselves into the Velvets, Kiss, the Fall, Beastie Boys, the Rat Pack and scads of B-grade horror flicks.
But it’s the band’s strange dual affinities for black pop and heavy metal that dominate these two discs. On Kustom Karnal, singer Mark Robinson alternately imagines himself as a Mark E. Superstar, a “Black Power Dynamo” itching to “put the E in sex” and as a metal hero looking to “Kill Whitey.” It’s a pretty unsophisticated yin/yang, to say the least, and not a one of the oppressive metallic dirges is particularly listenable. Still a few songs register amid the fray: the two aching uber-ballads, “Chelsea Chick Delux” and “She Makes Me Shake Like a Soul Machine,” are poignantly shivering, and the joyous “Teenage Suicide” (“Don’t do it/Yes I can”) is classic pulp.
Malcolm X Park is far more diffuse and, not coincidentally, far better. This time, Unrest prioritizes hooks over concept, and brilliantly offhanded pop songs like the Hollies-esque “Can’t Sit Still” and the Cure-gone-indie “Christina” fit perfectly among genre spoofs and sympathetic filler. Best moment: Robinson screaming “rock ‘n roll pneumonia!” on the remarkable Kiss tribute “Strutter,” calling out a band he’d kill to be in.
Stereolab, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night
No such emotional investment on Stereolab’s new album, proud owner of the clunkiest album title since, oh, Stereolab’s 1993 tongue-twister Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements: this is a band that approaches its influences with an almost archaeological precision. It’s made for some fascinating music, an odd but deceptively accessible amalgam of Krautrock, lounge and Socialist sloganeering.
Cobra’s big move is to branch out into vaguely jazzy territory, an always risky gambit that finds the band in surprisingly tentative form. “Fuses” kicks the album off with something of a brassy flourish, but Stereolab quickly retreats and in the process smoothes off its once-jagged edges to numbing effect. There’s way too much jazz-lite here – jazz-lite as played by Kraftwerk, maybe, but it’s still not a thrilling proposition.
When things to get going, there’s some minor fun to be had. “Infinity Girl” and “Op Hop Detonation” finally reinstate the blurping backdrops to which Laetitia Sadier’s deadpan vocals provide unique counterweight. But “Blue Milk” is Stereolab’s first failed epic, nearly ten minutes that aren’t as much bad as they are background. Post-mortem: too much milk, not enough voltage.