DEAN & BRITTA with the JEWISH LEGEND at the Mod Club (722 College), Monday (March 12). $16.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
When a guy's been playing music professionally for two solid decades, weathered the breakup of two cult-favourite bands and pulled off god knows how many international tours, you figure there's very little that'd faze him, at least on a rock 'n' roll level.
So it's weird to hear indie rock vet Dean Wareham, who's been lying low since his Luna crew called it quits at the end of 04, sound shaky about the prospect of going back on the road.
Wareham's apprehension is especially odd considering that his current tour is arguably a second honeymoon for the wry rocker and wife Britta Phillips (Luna's former bassist and the singing voice of Jem on the Jem & The Holograms cartoon).
At least that's what you'd assume after hearing the flirty vocal pas-de-deux the pair perform on their stunning new Back Numbers (Zoe/Rounder) album.
"The few warm-up shows we played about a month ago were terrifying," offers Wareham from his NYC home. "I hadn't played live in about two years, and coming back into a different situation without the band I'm familiar with? Well...."
He trails off.
"By the time we get to Toronto, I'm sure we'll at least be able to fake it better. Luna'd been playing together for so long, it was effortless - we never even had to practise. But it was different playing in a rock band so loud I could barely hear myself."
Divided between gently swaying originals like a lyrics-enhanced version of the pair's theme for the film The Squid And The Whale, and perfectly selected covers of tracks by the Troggs and Donovan, the album explodes with Spector-worthy strings, hazy Spiritualized electronic bloops and shimmers and gauzy vocal overdubs that allow Phillips to be her own girl group.
Even for devout Dean & Britta followers, Phillips's fantastic vocal performance is one of the biggest revelations on Back Numbers. It's a side she rarely (if ever) got to explore in Luna, and the couple's L'Avventura debut barely scratches the surface of the range Phillips showcases here.
Listen to her breathy, coquettish coo on the chimey lullaby White Horses, then try to hold your heart in check when her voice explodes into an echoing howl on the chorus of the Lee Hazlewood-penned You Turned My Head Around. Even Hazlewood digs the cover.
"I managed to get an MP3 of that song to Lee last week," Wareham says, sounding pleased. "Y'know, he's fighting cancer and in the hospital right now, and I don't know how well he's doing, but when his manager played it for him, he smiled. That was nice for us. Apparently, Lee hears covers all the time, and he's just kind of like 'meh. '"
Wareham would know. Years ago, when he dabbled in music writing, he interviewed Hazlewood. If we're lucky, perhaps he'll include the anecdote in his memoir, set to be published by Penguin in the nearish future.
He claims the hardest part of memoir-izing is "reliving old experiences and getting mad at people all over again."
It's equally troubling for him to watch his former band grind to a slow halt in the Luna documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me, released on DVD last summer.
"It's like watching myself go crazy," Wareham sighs. "It's like the process when you're getting out of a relationship, when you build a case in your mind about how it's difficult and intolerable. I find that film very hard to watch."
On a happier note, Wareham says that working on Back Numbers reminded him that making records doesn't have to be gruelling. If you've seen the Luna doc, you'll know that by the end of their decade-long tenure, Wareham and guitarist Sean Eden were wrestling with palpable tension, so his confession that recording with Phillips and legendary producer Tony Visconti was a dream compared to the sessions behind later Luna records is no great surprise.
"Tony does deserve a lot of credit for that. He's made so many records that he's expert at solving problems. We were nervous at first," Wareham adds. "You worry that someone from the 60s won't have kept up with technology. But he was completely up on ProTools and all that.
"We thought about asking if David Bowie would guest on the record," he continues, alluding to Visconti's famous client, "but Tony said Bowie would probably rather do a painting for the album cover.
"Well, too bad. I don't like his paintings!"
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Dean explains why he and Britta choose to include so many cover songs on their albums
Dean talks about writing his memoir