“I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor Of L.A.” (Double Feature Records)
By Eleni P. Austin
“I’m not selling out, I’m cashing in, every game was a waiting game, every fuck was a flying fuck, every pause was a pregnant pause, I’m not selling out, I’m cashing in. That’s Dean Wareham splitting hairs on “Cashing In,” from his new solo album, I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor Of L.A.
Dean has been creating memorable music professionally for 35 years now. First as frontman for two influential Post-Punk bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna, and most recently as a solo artist.
He was born in Wellington, New Zealand, the Wareham family spent time in Sydney, Australia, before relocating to New York City in 1977 when he was 14. Although the city was mired in crime, decadence and decay, the music scene was thriving, thanks to the advent of Punk Rock.
Dean attended Harvard and it was there that he connected with bassist Naomi Yang and drummer Damon Krukowski. Named after a friend’s vintage Galaxie 500 Ford, the nascent trio gigged around Boston and NYC. Demos soon followed and their debut, Today, in 1988, via the tiny Aurora label.
Galaxie 500’s lo-fi Psychedelic sound was heavily influenced by 60s/70s progenitors like The Velvet Underground and Modern Lovers as well as the British band, Spaceman 3. Following their debut, they released two more gems, 1989’s On Fire and 1990’s This Is Our Music. But just as the band began to gain momentum, they broke up.
Dean persevered, forming Luna in 1991. An indie “supergroup” of sorts, it featured former Chills bassist Jason Harwood and ex-Feelies drummer Stanley Demenski. In the beginning, Stanley didn’t have his own drum kit, so he (permanently) borrowed one from his pal, Conan O’ Brien.
Preceding Luna’s formation, Dean had already signed a deal with Elektra and their first album Lunapark, was released in 1992. The Velvets continued to be touchstones along pioneering NYC Punks Television (R.I.P. Tom Verlaine). Drafting off the blueprint created by those two iconic bands, Luna began to expand their sonic horizons.
By Bewitched, released in 1994, the trio became a four-piece with the edition of second guitarist, Sean Eden. Their watershed third record, Penthouse, landed a year later. It featured an astute version of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie And Clyde.” Rolling Stone was so smitten they declared it one of the essential albums of the ‘90s.
The band finished out the 20th century with 1997’s Pup Tent and 1999’s Days Of Our Nights. Jason Harwood left in 2000 and was replaced by Britta Phillips. A live album, Luna Live and two more studio efforts, Romantica and Rendezvous were released before Luna called it a day in 2005.
By that time, Britta and Dean had married and released two albums, L’Avventura and Back Numbers, in 2002 and 2007, respectively. Both efforts were produced by legendary producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T-Rex and Thin Lizzy). Following Luna’s demise, Dean kept a relatively low profile, touring sporadically and, along with Britta, composing the score for Noah Baumbach’s breakthrough film, The Squid & The Whale. He wrote a memoir, Black Postcards and in 2014, he released his self-titled solo debut, produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James.
In 2015, Luna reconvened, launched a tour and two years later, recorded their A Sentimental Education LP and an follow-up EP, A Place Of Greater Safety. He sorta resumed his solo career in 2018, with the release of a collection of Western-themed songs entitled Dean Wareham Vs Chevel Sombre, which was a collaboration with singer-songwriter, Cheva Sombre. Dean and Britta hunkered down during the pandemic and created Quarantine Tapes. Now Dean has returned with his third solo effort, I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor Of L.A.
The record is off to a tentative start with “The Past Is Our Plaything. Wispy guitar chords flank Dean’s sing-song vocals on the opening verse. As the arrangement slowly accelerates, sinewy riffs, thrumming bass, flatulent keys and a kick-drum beat are folded into the mix. Lyrics shapeshift from wistful; “Tonight I am playing my three-thirty-five, while gazing at your photograph, we’re living inside a beautiful dream, a winter where memory sleeps…” to whimsical; “I challenged myself to a duel yesterday, I carried a lock of your hair, I insulted myself, I counted to twelve, we fired shots in the air, it’s a gay parade, above my pay grade, I feel like we’ve taken first prize.” A twangy, reverb-drenched guitar solo shivers on the break, but Dean’s demeanor remains deadpan from start to finish.
Part of “The Past…” was influenced by The Man In The Red Coat, by Julian Barnes, who noted “in writing historical accounts, you can’t really ever know the whole truth. The past cannot talk to you, so you have to invent it.” That opened the door for Dean to add his own spin to actual events. Take “Robin & Richard, a tart homage to the band’s Italian tour manager and driver. The song is powered by iridescent guitars dust up against plucky bass lines and a snapback beat. Slightly querulous lyrics limn a less glamorous life on the road; “I’m living on greenies, and Aperol spritz, I stay at La Quinta and never the Ritz, they’ve taken my girl. I been on a diet, my trousers won’t fit.” The shaggy, slightly countrified melody intensifies on the break when he unspools a ragged, Spaghetti-Western flavored solo.
Meanwhile, “The Last Word” delves into the life of Jenny Julia Eleanor Marx, the British-born, activist daughter of socialist-revolutionary, Karl Marx. Flickering guitar riffs connect with vroom-y keys, tensile bass and a beat so taut, you could bounce a quarter off it. Conversational lyrics sketch out saga of misplaced trust and betrayal; “I fell in love with a Communist cad, a free union, he drove me mad.” When she confronts her longtime partner, Edward Aveling, who had secretly married someone else a year earlier, he attempts to justify his actions; “I told you lies but I never deceived you, you only heard what you wanted to hear.” Men. Sheesh. Fed up, she opts out; “Send for the chemist, send for the maid, my time has come, I’m not afraid.” On the break cascading guitar notes split the difference between Bouzouki and Balalaika, droning cello, prickly keys and shuddery strings mirror her despair. After discovering his staggering, perfidies, Eleanor took her own life in 1888.
Then there’s “Red Hollywood,” which speaks to the shame of HUAC and the Communist which hunts, by focusing on the bleak circumstances for John Garfield (ne’ Jacob Julius Garfinkle). He was talented actor and movie star who refused to name names. A spare, almost bare-bones arrangement of meandering guitar, willowy woodwinds, handclaps and slapdash percussion cocoon the Haiku-ish lyrics that chart his downfall; “Put him on the grey list, put him on the black, my tender comrades, gonna break your back.” An early proponent of Stanislavski’s “Method” acting style, he was an inspiration to younger actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean. He defiantly stood his ground and held on to his integrity; “The honors are ironic, the compliments are paid, but I can’t write a word, and I can’t get laid/I’m so tired of living in the shadows, living this way, night and day.” Sadly he was blacklisted from the movie industry and he died of a heart attack at age 39.
On a record packed with superlative tracks, two stand out, “Just As Much As It Was Worth” and the aforementioned Cashing In. On “Just As Much…” the melody and arrangement straddles the line between ‘60s Exotica and modal mysticism. Slithery guitars lattice swirly keys, shivery bass and a thwocky back-beat. Thick as molasses, Dean slowly unfurls an existential narrative before he gets to the point; “And was it worth it? And did it hurt? Just as much, as much as it was worth?/Yes it was worth it, and yes it hurt, just as much as it was worth.”
“Cashing In, is a rueful treatise on the peaks and valleys of the recording industry. Splayed acoustic chords are matched by painterly keys, angular bass and a propulsive beat. The opening verse touches on the fickle nature of the biz; “I used to think we were on the brink, I could just watch my fortunes grow, I used to think our ship was coming in….all of my chords were minor chords, no major sixths, or B-diminished, all my rewards are just rewards, I’m not selling out, I’m cashing in.” The swelling (synthesized?) strings that underscore each revelation, add a Jimmy Webb patina, almost echoing the humble grandeur of songs like “Wichita Lineman” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”
The album includes a couple of trenchant, slightly obscure covers. First up is the woozy Psychedelia of Lazy Smoke’s “Under Skys,” followed by Scott Walker’s beatific groover, “Duchess.” Finally, the record takes an overly politically turn with “Corridors Of Power” and Why Are We In Vietnam?”
The former opens with spiraling guitars, hypnotic keys, spectral bass and a chugging rhythm. Surf guitar riffs squiggle and slash, acting as a wordless Greek chorus for Dean’s mounting indignation. Suddenly the arrangement shapeshifts, locking into a lo-fi shuffle, before the song shudders to a halt.
The latter, which closes the album, weds feathery guitar chords, throbby bass lines, and a wash of keys to a hi-hat kick. Lyrics take the bloated, military industrial complex to task, questioning the efficacy of American troops stationed across the globe; “Why are we in Tripoli? Why are we in Baghdad….they don’t know the score, or what we’re fighting for, they don’t like us anymore.” He also takes aim at his own inertia; “Why are we in Beverly Hills? Why are we at Hooters? Why are we in Echo Park? We need to stop the looters.” Pointillist guitar notes quickly dart across the break before cascading riffs usher the album to a close.
This is a solo record in name only. While Dean handled lead vocals and guitar, longtime collaborators like Roger Brogan played drums, Britta Phillips added bass and backing vocals and producer Jason Quever provided guitar, organ, cello and drums.
From Galaxie 500 to Luna to his solo music, Dean Wareham has charted a course that honors his musical influences and manages to expand his horizons, creating new sonic landscapes. Coming off lockdown and the pandemic, I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor Of L.A. is equal parts insular and expansive. (AWE Bar Presents Dean Wareham Plays Galaxie 500 + John Tottenham, Saturday, March 4, 2023, 7pm. Tickets via DICE.FM 56193 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Yucca Valley, CA)