Today marks the release of Dean & Britta’s 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol Screen Tests. It’s the fourth LP from Dean & Britta, the longtime collaborators who, now a married union, were once half of Luna. The deluxe CD follows last year’s multimedia DVD of 13 Most Beautiful, which documents, commemorates, and distributes the international series of live performances at which Dean & Britta – and band – performed thirteen songs under a 20-foot projection of the thirteen screen tests they selected from the hundreds available.
The Andy Warhol Museum commissioned the project with assistance from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and offered up its archives for research.
After premiering 13 Most Beautiful at the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts in 2008, Dean & Britta toured prestigious art institutions including the Walker Art Center, the Wexner Center, Mass MoCA, the ICA in Boston, and the MCA in Chicago – and that’s just within the U.S. “It’s been a fantastic collaboration,” says the enthusiastic curator behind the concept, Ben Harrison, Associate Curator of Performance at The Warhol.
This ongoing project loosely coincides with Dennis Hopper’s posthumous retrospective at Deitch/MoCA and Conrad Ventur’s recent update to the Screen Tests at Momenta Art. Then again, that’s no big deal, because there is always a new exhibition, film (new Basquiat doc), book (Arthur Danto), album (Lou Reed’s Berlin Live at St. Ann’s), death (Callie Angel), or auction record (AW’s Self-Portrait: Eyes Closed) to add to the expanded world of Warhol. Warhol is always vital and always in circulation.
Still, the broad institutional support indicates that the project has compelling elements at its conception. Many of the host institutions booked the performance “sight unseen.” One compelling element is public demand: all of the shows in the tour have sold out, and the upcoming CMJ show in New York will be the 50th instantiation of 13 Most Beautiful.
The new album breaks with the sequence of the live performance, and also mingles the remixes with the originals. Purists might frown on this, but then 13 Most Beautiful is a sovereign album, not a score: “The songs/tracks were made for the Screen Tests, so we had to rethink it in terms of a listening experience on its own, whether you’ve seen the show or not,” says Britta Phillips by email.
A bigger problem is that if you haven’t seen the live performance, you might not know which songs correspond to which visuals. How do we know that Eyes in My Smoke is about Ingrid Superstar?
(UPDATE 8/4/10: “We have included thumbnail photos of all the Screen Test subjects inside the CD along with the title of their track in order to take care of that,” says Britta. I was working with the digital download album, not the hard copy. Thanks, Britta!)
In some cases, we have eponymous or allusive titles, such as International Velvet Theme or Herringbone Tweed, respectively – the latter refers to Dennis Hopper’s jacket.
Or you might also catch clues linking songs to subjects. Along with the sound of dreary rain, Incandescent Innocent samples Mozart’s Coronation Mass, a riddle requiring Pat Hackett’s POPism for its solution: “After his bath, Freddy put Mozart’s Coronation Mass on the hi-fi… As the record got to the ‘Sanctus,’ he danced out the open window with a leap so huge he was carried halfway down the block onto Cornelia Street five stories below.”
This revelation is an example of precisely why the aforementioned problem invites a very satisfying solution. When you do venture to uncover (just do a Google!) which song goes with which superstar, you are rewarded with an abstract and musically erudite interpretation of that person, rather than hairball gossip and amphetamine-eroded hearsay. (Those formats worked for Warhol, but they don’t work for history.) “Cue taut, hazy, often narcoleptic Velvetsy strains that Wareham has historically carried into newly expressive spheres, heavy on reverb and echo to mirror the spellbound, chemically imbalanced staes and twitches of the subjects,” writes Martin Aston for MOJO. “Mirror” is the keyword to describe the relation between song and Screen. “The songs are meant to evoke some feeling, some kind of aura about the people, not to tell their stories,” according to Harrison.
And these interpretations seem to directly confront the artists. How do you write a song about Lou Reed? Even harder: how do you write, record, and perform a song about the image of Lou Reed wrapping his lips around a Coca-Cola bottle?
The daunting challenge to take on a songwriter of Lou Reed’s towering stature, especially when he is your most acknowledged influence, will only invite inevitable comparisons of the author with his subject. Even though Luna opened for the VU’s reunion tour, and even though Sterling Morrison played on a few of the Luna records, Dean Wareham defers to homage, rather than being dwarfed by the still-living legend Lou, and smartly covers an obscure single that the VU never even recorded in the studio, I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.
Another meaningful cover, accompanying Nico’s screen test, is a cover of Bob Dylan’s I’ll Keep it with Mine, which Dylan wrote for Nico, who performed a version on her Chelsea Girl album. Here, vocalist Britta insulates herself from Nico’s pros and cons with a layer of auto-tune.
Insulation means a lot in the realm of Warhol, someone who wanted to be a machine, wore a silver wig, rarely touched people, didn’t visit his mother in the hospital, and abided by a cosmologically pervasive “surface.” Insulating him from the outside world, the Factory kept Warhol in a perpetual slumber party with kindred outsiders and freaks. Hence, Dean & Britta mostly committed to the Factory regulars when selecting the Screen Tests they’d put to music. Alhough Warhol would choose reels at random when screening for public audiences, Dean & Britta probably realized that they could synthesize a portrait of the Factory itself. The Factory has been heavily documented, but Dean & Britta capitalize in extraordinary ways on the time-based contingency of the Screen Tests, shining a light and re-animating them in ways unavailable to the latest coffee-table sarcophagus of photos.
“They are so much like portraits to be recorded at regular speed and then projected in slow motion. You look and think that they are still photos, but then a tear wells up and rolls down a cheek and the image comes to life, in dramatic slow motion,” notes Ben Harrison. “That is the genius of the Screen Tests.”