Go See Luna Play Penthouse, One of the Most Underrated Albums of the '90s

Luna
Luna
Courtesy of Grandstand Media

In 1995, I had pretty much lost interest in contemporary rock music. The grunge revolution was not for me; I had liked Nirvana well enough, but groups like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam had, to my ears, sapped all the joy out of rock & roll and replaced it with bombastic, macho posturing — and their successors, Silverchair and Stone Temple Pilots, were even worse. I wasn't in college anymore and I didn't make a living writing about music yet, so I hadn't discovered Pavement or Slint. I retreated into classic rock and Otis Redding and mostly ignored new music.

Then somebody played me Luna's Penthouse and my head exploded. The bent notes of "Sideshow by the Seashore," the gauzy fuzztone riffs of "23 Minutes in Brussels." Who knew electric guitars could sound this seductive? Instantly, Penthouse became my favorite guitar-based album of that year (my other '95 favorite, Ben Folds Five, the ultimate post-grunge hangover cure, featured no guitars at all).

I'm glad Penthouse was my entry point into the catalog of Luna mastermind Dean Wareham, because for me, it remains his defining work. Wareham's music has always mainly served as a showcase for his endlessly inventive guitar riffs, and this album feature at least half a dozen of his best, including the noir-ish opener "Chinatown" and the aptly titled "Rhythm King." And as a songwriter, he's at the top of his game, reeling off cryptic one-liners like "Livin' with sick people makes me feel strong" (from "Kalamazoo") that add to the album's overall vibe of alienation and ennui.

Penthouse got plenty of critical praise in its day and in the years since; dean of rock curmudgeons Robert Christgau gave it a rare "A" rating, and in a review of a Luna greatest hits comp, Pitchfork called it the band's best album. Despite this, Penthouse remains weirdly underrated. It almost never appears on lists of the '90s' best albums, or gets mentioned alongside other classics of the era like Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or Radiohead's The Bends. But for my money, it was just as great and just as influential. You can hear traces of Penthouse in a host of bands that followed in its wake, from Pinback to Ambulance LTD to current groups like Deerhunter and Pop Etc.

The current lineup features Wareham and Penthouse-era guitarist Sean Eden, along with later recruits Britta Phillips on bass and Lee Wall on drums. They're touring for the first time in 10 years and playing Penthouse in its entirety at the Teragram Ballroom this Sunday, Oct. 25. Tickets are still available. You should go. This is one of those shows they're going to be talking about for a long time.

For other upcoming shows, check out our concert calendar.


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