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Lost in the Strum Groove

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LUNA / LOW

METRO, MAY 6

Even today, almost three decades after the Velvet Underground's start, rock 'n' roll continues to produce examples of their indelible influence. The musical and personal styles charted out by mope chanteuse Nico and highbrow aesthete John Cale, to say nothing of young Lou Reed's troublesome excesses--which is to say, the behavior that challenged all sorts of notions of what pop bands could be and do--have been adopted by endless numbers of postpunk artists. Black nail polish, S-M dabblings, and the romanticization of death, drugs, high-speed ennui, and other unsociable traits are only the most obvious examples of their influence.

The band's third, eponymous album, its first without Cale, proved to be the most musically prescient and reverberating. The album cover is an unpretentious, almost relaxed shot of the band reclining in a living room; correspondingly, while Reed's lyrical motifs could never be called mundane, his themes on this record are markedly less out there than on the band's preceding albums. But the true landmark achievement of The Velvet Underground, as I see it, is its relentless, hypnotic guitar work. Reed, the ultimate scrappy guitarist, along with Cale replacement Doug Yule, left technical flash behind for mind-warping, mesmerizing bouts of Herculean strumming--extremely repetitive three-chord cycles whose highly infectious grooves suck the receptive listener into a celebratory and liberating bliss. Long before the mechanistic relentlessness of techno started transporting ravers into hallucinogenic realms of higher understanding, Velvet Underground strumfests were sending listeners into metaphysical frenzies. The band had experimented with this kind of sound previously, particularly on White Light/White Heat, but the anarchic presence of the overly theoretical Cale usually sullied or derailed the process. On the third album--with irresistible chunks of aural hypnosis like "What Goes On" and "Beginning to See the Light"--nothing stopped the wheels from spinning round and round and round.

One of the first significant groups to pick up on the Velvets' approach was Hoboken's Feelies. In fact, the remarkable guitar solo epiphanies in "What Goes On" can almost be seen as the blueprint for the dual guitar heights achieved by Bill Million and Glenn Mercer on the Feelies' acclaimed (if overlooked at the time) 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms. After the Feelies came a long list of Velvets-touched bands, though the influence gets harder to trace: Galaxie 500, that trio of mopey Harvard graduates led by the nasal and whiny Dean Wareham, offered a murky, lethargic take on the Velvets, the churning guitar strum slowed to a funereal pace and clouded with excessive reverb effects; their sleepy sound has in turn influenced slow rockers like Chicago's Seam and New York's Codeine.

After splitting off from his Galaxie 500 compatriots in 1991--the other two went on to record under the name Damon & Naomi and have just turned up in a band called Magic Hour--Wareham started a new outfit, first called Luna2, then, thankfully, just Luna. The drummer, appropriately enough, is the Feelies' Stanley Demeski--a master at holding patterns and supporting the guitar groove. Former Chills bassist Justin Harwood and newly added second guitarist Sean Eden fill out the band. Not surprisingly, the strum is the thing for Luna. While the band's 1992 debut, Lunapark, drew on a variety of effects-aided guitar textures, the new Bewitched (both albums are on Elektra) actually strips things down, cleaning up the guitar sound and offering a more structurally homogeneous collection of songs. With genuine VU alum Sterling Morrison sitting in on a couple of songs, Bewitched finds Luna fully dedicating itself to one of the Velvets' many ideals and finding that just as with modern medicine, specialization is the key.

Luna's gig at Metro last Friday showed off the band's ability to transcend the hypnotic strum-grooves without abandoning them. If the audience wasn't losing itself in Luna's trance-out waves, they were certainly enraptured by the combination of Demeski's insistent circular rhythms and the lock-step grooves elegantly carved out by Wareham and Eden. One palpable difference between Luna and its progenitor is the newer band's restraint; while Wareham provided a fair number of guitar solos, they didn't emanate inexorably from the groove like Reed's with VU, which were the sonic equivalent of speaking in tongues, primal utterances that simply burst out when the strum-groove failed to satisfy as a mode of expression. Then there was Luna's telling cover of the Dream Syndicate's seething "That's What You Always Say," from the LA band's 1982 The Days of Wine and Roses, an album that was another unabashed salute to the Velvet Underground, but to its earlier, more reckless, more feedback-soaked days. Luna softened the tune's edges and drained it of its desperation. Wedding VU's musical hypnosis to its own aural lushness, Luna walks the soft side of the street.

Softer yet was Low, a young trio from Duluth, Minnesota, who might well be the quietest rock band going. So low is Low's volume that the audience's typical opening-band chatter almost overwhelmed the band's pin-drop evocations. Whereas most rock bands beat their audiences into submission, Low seeks out the truly submissive, those who'll willingly surrender given half the opportunity. If Luna is seeking a hypnotic minimalism, Low's looking for a somnambulant nothingness. The ultrasimplistic guitar-bass blend of Alan Sparhawk and John Nichols, coupled with the sublimely minimal rhythms of drummer Mimi Parker--whose kit consists solely of a cymbal and a tom played with brushes--adopts the Galaxie 500 sound and strips it of all development. The band invests itself entirely in creating a sonic trance, devoid of any structural or even emotional variety, but the exquisite vocal mesh of Sparhawk (who sounds a lot like Wareham) and Parker captivatingly counterbalances the instrumental austerity. Low's music reduces the strum to its core, angelic voices vulnerably fluttering out of the chordal decay. The only real difference between Low live and their debut album, I Could Live in Hope (Vernon Yard), is all the audience yammering. But that was enough: live, their sound pummeled by the conversations of indifferent audience members, Low was more a distraction than an attraction.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Philin Phlash.

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