Dean & Britta 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests

[Double Feature Records; 2010]

Styles: indie rock
Others: Luna, The Velvet Underground, Spectrum

I sort of wish I had been a fly on the wall at the Andy Warhol Museum when they were coming up with ideas for 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests:

Recent Art School Graduate: I know! Let’s get Sonic Youth to score the screen tests!”
Director: Eh. I don’t want to be the person responsible for unleashing a Kim Gordon-led version of “Femme Fatale” onto the world.
RASG: How about Times New Viking? I heard they did a bunch of Velvet Underground covers once.
Director: Who?? That band from Ohio? What do I pay you people for?
RASG: Um, I’m an unpaid intern.
Director: Whatever. All I’m looking for is a group with decades of experience recreating the spirit of 60s downtown art rock, a group with some rock-snob cred who will also go over well with the middle-aged museum-going type.
RASG: Oh, I think you are talking about Dean & Britta. I’ve read about them on NPR.

Or maybe it was much easier than that.

You will excuse me if collisions between art institutions and rock music bring out my inner-cynic; in all fairness, Dean & Britta were not only the most obvious, but also probably the best choice for this project. Britta Phillips and husband Dean Wareham have been making records that could soundtrack scenes from Warhol’s Factory for their entire career (together in Luna, Wareham as front man of Galaxie 500), and so 13 Most Beautiful quite naturally works well as both an unobtrusive score to Warhol’s amphetamine-driven stare-offs and as a standalone Dean & Britta record.

Each track on 13 Most Beautiful syncs directly with one of Warhol’s portraits. Of the 13 songs, two are covers plucked straight from the Factory coterie: Dylan’s (via Nico) “I’ll Keep it with Mine” and The Velvet Underground’s live rarity “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.” On the former, Britta’s voice gets the Auto-Tune treatment in an apparent attempt to echo Nico’s deadened baritone. Instead of added gravitas, though, the effect adds even more space to Dean & Britta’s already airy sound. On “I’m not a Young Man Anymore,” Wareham masterfully nails the tones and phrasing of the original, replacing the claustrophobia and nihilism of White Light-era VU with expansiveness and confidence. Aside from these covers, there are also period-piece instrumentals, “remixes” that add electronic flourishes (former Spaceman 3 cadet Sonic Boom produces two of them), and reworks of Luna songs.

Thankfully, the group doesn’t let the concept reduce them completely to “songs in the style of” pastiche hackery. “Eyes in my Smoke” canals a rockabilly intro and a sprightly, instantly lovable guitar line into a chorus that finds the duo trading off New York City commuter references. “It Don’t Rain in Beverly Hills,” a second-person character study of Edie Sedgwick set over gently buoyant synths, picks up the mantle from Stuart Murdock and Isobel Campbell in the best way possible. The video portraits, which literally loomed over Dean & Britta while they toured the material live, moor the songs to their subject and seem to provide the band with a fresh grip on their well-worn sources of inspiration.

Rather accidentally, I saw Dean & Britta play 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests last year. It was a free outdoor concert at the tail-end of summer, and I wandered into the amphitheater as the sun was disappearing beneath the horizon. Soon, I was watching Dennis Hopper’s pensive mug on the big screen over jangly open E and open A chords. It was rather nice, almost soothing even, but it seemed a bit unfaithful to the spirit that made Warhol and his cohorts important in the first place. The existential unease and voyeurism/exhibitionism dynamic that mark Warhol’s screen tests were here replaced by static reverence and a rosy hued “shit, things were cool back then” tone. Of course, it behooves both Dean & Britta and the Andy Warhol Museum to blithely ignore any tension that exists between Warhol’s subversiveness and their efforts towards canonization. As a Dean & Britta recording, 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen’s conservatism is embracing and familiar, like those frequent E to A changes. Unfortunately, though, the gulf in ambition and scale separating the work from its subject is not easily ignored.

Links: Dean & Britta - Double Feature Records

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