- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dean & Britta

Back Numbers

Zoe/Rounder

A feeling of intimacy, sometimes warm, sometimes uncomfortable, pervades this second full-length recording by the duo of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. Their first album, “L’Avventura,” was a mix of covers and originals, presented with simple instrumentation and straightforward arrangements. “Back Numbers” follows the same template, but because it arrives on the heels of the breakup of their popular band Luna, it doesn’t have that side project feel. Instead it feels like progress — Mr. Wareham marshaling his experience as a frontman for independent rock bands Galaxie 500 and Luna in the service of a new genre — alternative easy listening.

If this sounds like a knock, it’s not — not really. Remember that pioneering student band Galaxie 500 was a creature of the late 1980s. The generation of indie rock fans that came of musical age against the backdrop of Mr. Wareham’s distinctive aural landscapes isn’t hitting the clubs as much as it used to. So the timing seems right for Generation X, now pushing into its 40s, to kick back with music that doesn’t command a cover charge or come with a hard-to-wash-off hand stamp.

This is all by way of preparing the listener for a sweet, mellow and deeply personal excursion that occasionally borders on the cornball, and sometimes crosses right over that frontier with nary a backward glance. Their cover of the Troggs’ “Our Love Will Still be There” includes a sample of gently lapping surf shamelessly cross-faded with the strumming guitar intro. The song “Crystal Blue R.I.P.” is billed as a eulogy for a friend’s bunny rabbit.

“I’m Easy” hinges on a seductive organ fill that’s a nod to Serge Gainsbourg’s notoriously carnal “Je t’aime.” Mr. Wareham channels Mr. Gainsbourg’s gleefully naughty vocal style, alternating between a hoarse whisper and a wanton coo. Still, the arrangements retain a light touch, thanks in part to producer Tony Visconti, best known for his work on the David Bowie classics “Young Americans,” “Space Oddity,” and “The Man Who Sold the World.”

Musically, Mr. Wareham and Miss Phillips conjure an aura of mystery with a balanced mix of guitar effects, vibraphone and synthesizer that will be familiar to fans of Luna. Miss Phillips matches the softness of Mr. Wareham’s vocals on their duets, but is also capable of more soaring arcs.

Yet there is a quiet earnestness to the shared vocals on “The Sun Is Still Sunny,” a song based on a theme the pair wrote for the film “The Squid and the Whale.” It seems to allude to the end of the 13-year run of Mr. Wareham’s band Luna, with the line, “I don’t know what to say/I can’t say what to do/But we’re not going back there again.”

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