Few bands last long enough to record their sixth studio album, and few of those who do reach that milestone have any surprises to offer. That's what makes Romantica
so unusual. By rights, it shouldn't
be good. For one thing, it's the first Luna album to be written and recorded without co-founder and former Chill Justin Harwood, who split to do the family thing shortly after the release of 1999's The Days of Our Nights
. More significantly, it was recorded on a comparatively tight budget while Luna languished in label-less limbo. A typical Luna album it certainly isn't.
And perhaps, with all due respect to Luna, that's a good thing. While the band's previous efforts were as intelligent and beautiful as a MENSA-initiated supermodel, they were also about as approachable -- their complex production and general moodiness translating into a sort of residual standoffishness. Romantica, by contrast, is intimate and personal. Whereas listening to previous Luna albums sometimes seemed like the musical equivalent of eavesdropping, Romantica makes you part of its conversation. The songs are simpler, livelier, a little more direct and a lot more hummable. Even Dean Wareham sounds friendlier, though he's still doing the Lou Reed Jr. thing, delivery-wise.
Romantica goes down easy, like the frothy pop nuggets of the late fifties. Opener "Lovedust" offers a strong lead-in, pairing a typically sweet-sounding guitar lead with an upbeat vocal performance from Wareham. New bassist Britta Phillips provides subtle backing vocals, making the fuzzed-out chorus ("A million, a billion, a trillion stars / A million, a billion stars") a sing-along magnet. "Weird and Woozy" launches a surprisingly robust refrain of "Oohs" and "Ohs", while "Black Postcards" pairs a beatbox rhythm (reportedly salvaged from a piece of commercial music that didn't make the cut) with sing-song lyrics and sugary pop guitars. Phillips proves her worth in "Mermaid Eyes", a borderline doo-wop duet with Wareham, her enticing vocals adding a decidedly sensual air to the proceedings. "Renée is Crying" sports a percolating bossa nova drum, the rolling thunder of a sampled timpani, and some of the silliest lyrics that Wareham has ever written ("Salt and pepper squid / and Singapore noodles / I could look at your face / for oodles and oodles"). Throughout the disc, Wareham exudes a friendly, almost dorky sincerity; as Dave Fridmann's production strips away the band's artsy layers, it also removes Wareham's brusqueness, morphing the vocalist from curmudgeon into an affable (if arch) everyman.
"Dizzy" in particular deserves close attention. While much of Romantica is rooted in classic pop structure, "Dizzy" borrows its melody from Van Halen's "Jump". It's most obvious during the refrain, though Wareham's Velvetized interpretation leaves little room for David Lee Roth-style excess. It's a subtler, less self-aware nod than The Days of Our Nights' cover of Guns 'n' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine", but it's there.
Wareham and his cohorts have never been much for profundity. Though Dean agonizes over his lyrics, we're still treated to rhymes like "noodles/oodles", suggesting that Luna have endured not because of their message, but because they're good. That they made Romantica, in spite of lineup changes and label disasters, is a testament to their abilities, and to their longevity. That's good for all of us, as it suggests that Luna will still be alive and kicking when the rest of the world finally discovers them.