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Most of Dean Wareham’s fans first fell in love with him through the dreamy sounds of Galaxie 500, the band he started with his Harvard classmates Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang in the mid ’80s. It’s perfect music to listen to intently, with headphones on, but it’s also perfect to have on in the background while you sip beers on the porch on a summer night.
This is all to say, as many times as I have turned “Tugboat” up really loud in my car and sung along, I don’t listen to Galaxie 500 for the lyrics.
But in Wareham’s subsequent music, the lyrics are almost always front and foremost. And when I first heard Bewitched, Luna’s second album, from 1994, I was a goner from the poppy first song, “California (All the Way).”
“Why can’t we smile just like we used to?/Why don’t you figure any more?/Why has my sympathy now turned to malice?/It doesn’t matter any more,” Wareham sings in the chorus of possibly the catchiest bitter breakup song other than “Hey Ya.”
When I read Wareham’s memoir years later, I felt almost hurt to learn he thought Bewitched was one of Luna’s worst albums—I had loved it so much. But no matter: Wareham’s clever lyrical wordplay had me hooked.
Luna played its last show in 2005, but Wareham’s been making music with his wife, Britta Phillips, who had joined Luna in 2000, ever since. Now he’s out with his first-ever full-length solo album, Dean Wareham. But don’t worry—it’s not a sign that he and Phillips are splitting up.
“She doesn’t sing on it, and she didn’t write any of the songs,” Wareham says, explaining why the album wasn’t released under the Dean and Britta moniker. “But she plays on it, and she was very involved in the production of it. I have to get her to listen to everything—women can hear things better than men can, I think.”
It just so happened that on the day we talked, Pitchfork had released its (favorable) review of the album. “It’s tempting to read into the fact that … Wareham is now releasing records under his own name for the first time in his nearly three-decade career,” wrote Stuart Berman. “It’s an album that humorously but honestly explores the tensions that arise in any long-term relationship.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way at all, honestly,” he says. “We just decided last year that we’ll both make solo albums next, but I finished mine quicker than Britta.”
Dean Wareham was recorded with Jim James, of My Morning Jacket fame, and it shows both in the orchestration and the production.
“This would have sounded so different without Jim,” Wareham says. “He turned what I wrote into pounding rock songs.”
Pounding for Wareham, at least—there’s probably more fuzz on his new album than anything he’s done since Galaxie 500, although several of the songs are also slow and quiet, almost meditative.
Wareham’s “solo” performance at Big Ears is actually him with a full band, including Phillips—the first before they head out on tour. But Wareham and Phillips are also performing a second time, as Dean and Britta, playing 13 songs composed to match selected screen tests filmed by Andy Warhol. The films will be projected behind the band and include some of Warhol’s most iconic collaborators, like Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Dennis Hopper, and Nico.
“It’s a part of [Warhol]’s work that not a lot of people know about and not a lot of people get to see,” Wareham says. “They’re strange. They’re spooky and haunting, maybe more so with the passage of time. He filmed them at regular speed and slowed them down when he showed them, so a three-minute screen test takes four minutes to watch—they’re like moving portraits.”
There’s one other possible collaboration that could happen at Big Ears. Television’s Tom Verlaine played on two songs on Luna’s 1995 album Penthouse. Could he possibly join Wareham on stage for a surprise reunion?
“Oh, that’s a good question—I had forgotten about that,” Wareham says. “I’ll send him an e-mail.”
Luna fans, keep your fingers crossed.
Dean Wareham performs at the Tennessee Theatre on Friday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. He performs 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests with Dean and Britta at the Bijou Theatre on Sunday, March 30, at 1 p.m.