Dean Wareham has long disavowed the Velvet Underground comparisons that have dogged him since his days fronting Galaxie 500; he has shrugged them off even as he has begged for them (inviting the late VU guitarist Sterling Morrison to guest on 1994's Bewitched), astutely claiming no one sounds like the Velvet Underground even as "Lost in Space" from last year's Penthouse recalls "Femme Fatale" and "Sweet Jane." But Wareham has a good point, and it's well-taken: Like Bedhead (just off the Luna tour as an opening act) and the long-defunct Feelies (whose drummer, Stanley Demeski, is a member of Luna), Wareham's bands have always looked to the VU as a mere jumping-off point, approaching that band's music not as the final exam but the first day of class.
Like attentive, brilliant pupils, these bands have learned the language crafted by Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen "Mo" Tucker, and Sterling Morrison and then used it to fashion their own unique sentences and stories. After all, lots of people speak English, but most never use more than a few thousand words; those who do are the gifted ones among us, the artists and inventors and pioneers who so eloquently shape our thoughts and give voice to our expressions. It's impossible to duplicate the sound of the VU--even the Velvets couldn't do it on their brief reunion tour--but it is possible to get inside the notes every now and then and understand how Lou Reed or Sterling Morrison played their instruments, even if you can never really understand why.
Besides, Wareham doesn't write anything like Lou Reed: Where Reed was so often the subject of his work (sometimes thinly veiled, usually right there up front with a needle sticking out of his arm), Wareham pens his lyrics with disappearing ink and sings them through a wise guy's smirk. By turns silly (he rhymes "you're out all night chasing girlies" with "you're late to work, and you go home earlies") and sardonic ("Nixon's in a coma/And I hope it's gonna last"), Wareham exudes from a safe distance the sense of humor he never quite exposed in Galaxie 500.
Above all else, he's an optimist, a fact revealed in the buoyant music and the cherry lyrics that often play themselves out like an elaborate in-joke. Luna does not exist in a vacuum, no more than Stereolab (whose Laetitia Sadler joins Wareham on Penthouse for the hidden "Bonnie and Clyde," sung entirely in French) or Bedhead or any other remarkable band, but a sense of history should never doom the great ones to yesterday.
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Luna performs February 3 at the Rehab Lounge.