88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Ken’s crucial albums: Luna’s “Penthouse”

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luna_promo_1994_bKen Sumka | 88Nine Radio Milwaukee
88Nine Radio Milwaukee
NYC quartet's third album, later named in Rolling Stone's "Top 100 Albums of the 1990's"

The year was 1995, President Clinton was halfway into his first term, and Mayor Giuliani had just begun his first term as well, so his much ballyhooed sanitizing of New York City hadn’t begun yet, so Manhattan still had some seedy edges. Luna always straddled the line between the city’s glitz and grit.

Read more below.

When they made their debut ‘Lunapark’ on Elektra Records, Luna was a trio still saddled with an annoying subscript Luna2. The album revealed their healthy Velvet Underground obsession and opens with the line “You can never give the finger to the blind”, displaying their wry sense of humor. Later in the same song (“Slide”) we’re told, “SoHo has the boots, NoHo has the crack, New England has the foliage but I’m not going back” showing Kiwi lead singer Dean Wareham’s keen grasp of Lower Manhattan’s nuances and slyly working in a reference to Wareham’s Harvard days (Conan O’Brien lived on the same floor!) and his Boston-based band, Galaxie 500. The original trio for ‘Lunapark’ featured Wareham (Galaxie 500), Justin Harwood (also a Kiwi) bass (The Chills) and (from New Jersey) drummer Stanley Demeski (The Feelies).

Their legal team managed to get the ‘2’ excised for the sophomore album ‘Bewitched’, for which they added lead guitarist, Sean Eden. The sound started to gel with ‘Bewitched’ and songs like “Tiger Lily” and “California (All The Way)” got some airplay and some licensing deals, one for a Calvin Klein commercial.

The musical landscape in 1995 was littered with a bunch of post-grunge signings trying in vain to sound like Nirvana and Soundgarden and bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day were at their peaks. At Elektra, Luna was not a priority, with Better Than Ezra, Third Eye Blind and Björk all getting more love. However, with some good press under their belt and following some high-profile gigs like opening for Screaming Trees and The Velvet Underground’s European tour, the third album ‘Penthouse’ came out in August of 1995, with a striking b/w photo of 1950’s New York by Ted Croner.

The album opens with “Chinatown”, with a few lines about Luna’s newly-single A&R man:
“You’re out all night/chasing girlies/you’re late to work/and you go home earlies” also showing Wareham’s knack for whimsical rhymes. Sean Eden’s slinky tremelo-bar workout “Sideshow By The Seashore” is next, one of the album’s high points.

On the ‘Bewitched’ album, Luna scored Velvet Underground’s Sterling Morrison, further cementing the band’s VU love. For ‘Penthouse’, they brought in another iconic NYC guitarist–Television’s Tom Verlaine–who played a terrific lead on “23 Minutes In Brussels”, interweaving beautifully with Eden and Wareham, another standout track, which would become a stretched-out jam in Luna’s live sets. A line in the chorus “Tell me do you miss me?” would later serve as the title of a Luna documentary, which came out in the wake of their breakup.

There isn’t a filler song on the album but the band, however, was not particularly fond of “Hedgehog”, which ironically Elektra chose as the first single, probably because it was one of the most concise and ‘rocked’ the hardest. One decision Elektra did get right was the choice of the uncredited bonus track, “Bonnie & Clyde”. (Remember that trend in the 90’s? Sneaking a bonus track at the end of a CD?). A&R man Terry Tolkin had recently signed French band Stereolab and convinced the band to cover the Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot song with Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier singing the Bardot part and helping Wareham with the French parts. Sean Eden even replicated the ‘ooh e ooh’ part. It was genius move; even if it didn’t get them radio play, it did land in a Cadillac commercial, earning the label a cool $120K. The band never saw a cent of that.

While ‘Penthouse’ never set any sales records, it has stood the test of time and 22 years later still sounds fantastic, ahead of its time, even. Upon its release, The Dean of Rock Critics–Robert Christgau–gave it an “A” and as mentioned earlier, Rolling Stone put the album on its ‘Top 100 Albums of the 1990’s” and many songs from it remained in their set lists throughout their career. The band split amicably in 2002 but have reunited a few times since for live performances. If you only buy one Luna album, let ‘Penthouse’ be the one, then you’ll want to fill in the rest of the catalog.