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Wednesday, March 7, 2007 12:07 pm

From side dish to main course

Dean and Britta, back with Back Numbers

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Dean and Britta Back Numbers (Zoë/Rounder)
Untitled Document Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, possibly the hottest middle-aged people on the planet, are back with Back Numbers, an album that’s almost as pretty as they are. Grieving Luna fans can’t be blamed if the occasion seems bittersweet, however. It’s hard not to wonder whether the excellence of the new CD is a result of Luna’s demise two years ago, which left the sexy spouses with a lot more time for their erstwhile side project. Still, it’s pure masochism not to celebrate the fact that Back Numbers is a triumph, combining the rainy-day reveries of the duo’s earlier work with lustrous flashes of Luna’s fretboard heroics. It isn’t a huge departure from previous efforts, but it does sound more assured — less a side project and more a real band. Like 2003’s L’Avventura and the recent Words You Used to Say EP, Back Numbers was produced by glam-rock legend Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex), who sensibly refrained from bringing too much glittery ruckus into the connubial boudoir. Kissed with shivering vibes and shuddering subharmonics, these ’60s-inspired duets alternate between the naughty élan of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin and the more down-home decadence of their American counterparts, Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. Wareham and Phillips aren’t as smutty as the former pair or as zany as the latter, but they’re just as charismatic in their way. Consisting of four rather obscure covers (including a Hazlewood-penned Ann-Margret vehicle) and seven co-written originals, the album is very much of a piece, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the couple’s amazing soundtrack for The Squid and the Whale. Wareham and Phillips have an unerring instinct for putting the perfect songs in the perfect context; they also seem to understand the intrinsic character of their voices — his bone-dry and reedy, hers dewy and girlish — and how to play up their strengths rather than compensate for their shortcomings. An ace band is always an asset, of course. Augmenting Phillips’ sturdy bass and Wareham’s predictably brilliant guitar are hypnotic synths, courtesy of Sonic Boom (formerly of Spacemen 3); vibes by sometime subway busker Sean McCaul; subtly groovy drums by Matt Johnson; and double bass and electric 12-string by Visconti. More impressive than the individual talents of the players, though, is their collective coherence, their absolute subservience to the songs. From the spectral opening dirge, “Singer Sing,” to the ebullient anthem “You Turned My Head Around,” to the string-sweetened psych canon “Crystal Blue R.I.P.,” everything flows together like a dream — the kind you might have on a Sunday morning, when you’re just lucid enough to realize that you’re sleeping in the arms of someone you love. Led by prizewinning fiction writer Mark Ray Lewis, Trilobite is a rusty, dusty avant-folk outfit that seems almost as ancient as its Paleozoic namesake. Based in Albuquerque, N.M. (also home to kindred spirits the Handsome Family), the band bolsters the frontman’s bleak erudition with scrappy instrumentation and oodles of eerie atmospherics. Depression-era pump organs and thrift-store pianos grapple with grumbling trombones, sobbing violas, and plangent pedal steel while Lewis and co-vocalist Michelle Collins sing about lonely pumpkin farmers, disgraced preachers, Burgundian sirens, and medieval soldiers. The goofy waltz “Let’s Hope for Esperanza,” wherein a horny García Lorca-quoting teenager moons over his family’s domestic, is a welcome bright spot, all bad puns and overdone sibilance, but it’s atypical. More characteristic is the appropriately titled “Samsara,” in which a bright banjo offsets a barely audible voice-mail message from an anoymous old lady whose birthday greeting to her estranged grandson is all the more poignant for being a wrong number.
Contact René Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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