Saturday, December 15, 2007

I'm dreaming of a blurry Christmas.

Here's a picture I took on December 4 during Chicago's first big snow of the winter. Happy holidays, 3.6 readers!

Monday, December 10, 2007

These Carpenters never performed any miracles.

I'm listening to the Carpenters' second album, Close to You (1970), right now, which I checked out from the library. (By the by, why isn't the RIAA taking on libraries in court? They're music-pirating enablers. But only if you can get your computer to actually recognize and load their scratched CDs, of course.) You know what? The Carpenters are no Bread.

Bread has songs like "Baby I'm-a Want You," "Make It With You," and "Sweet Surrender" that make me nostalgic for a time I never knew: the early '70s. And Beatlesque songs like "Daughter" make me realize how smart and reliable David Gates, James Griffin, and company were as musical craftsmen, while tracks like "Fancy Dancer" show that Bread could eliminate the soft from soft rock on occasion and deliver on that front as well. It's not their fault the heavier numbers didn't make it onto the radio. They were studio musicians, songwriters for hire, and producers before they came together to form Bread in the late '60s, and their experience and earned confidence come through in their music. You're in good hands with Bread.

Just as the Carpenters are no Bread, Chicago is no Bread, either, although Chicago would probably be offended by that statement, because I bet they think they rock much harder than they actually do. "Hard Habit to Break" almost rocks at one point, but that's because Bill Champlin sounds like he's popping a few capillaries when he sings "I'm addicted to you, baby!!!!" From what I've heard, most of the guys in Chicago were addicted to something that resembles baby powder. But not Peter Cetera. He was too mellow and blond for that. But if he was surrounded by cokeheads on endless tours throughout the late '60s, all of the '70s, and the early '80s, can you blame him for finally leaving after 18 years to pursue "The Glory of Love" and the glory of a paycheck that didn't have to be split a dozen ways? Children generally leave home at 18. Cetera had earned the right to grow up, move away, and pursue an adult (contemporary) education.

The Carpenters didn't do themselves any favors on Close to You covering songs like "Help!" and "Baby It's You" in the most Muzak-y way possible. The songs on the 1994 tribute album If I Were a Carpenter, which my ex-girlfriend had in college, are ten times better than any song on Close to You, especially Matthew Sweet's cover of "Let Me Be the One." Actually, I do like "(They Long to Be) Close to You," but that's partly because singing the waaaaaah-ah-ah-ah-aaaaahs in the song with a complete lack of subtlety is too much fun to pass up.

I'm not going to make an anorexia joke here, but I do think it's safe to say that both Karen and Richard Carpenter would've been wise to add Bread to their musical diet.

Friday, December 7, 2007

why my favorite TV show died

A radio station in Charleston, South Carolina, claimed that Moonlighting, my favorite show when I was younger, never recovered after the writers' strike that delayed the beginning of the 1988 fall season. Or so my friend Beau told me, as his wife, Kristen, had told him. But those Charleston DJs were only half right. Here's what I wrote to Beau and Kristen ...

Moonlighting was hurt by a lot of things. As one person who worked on the show said, the show's slow demise came about because "Cybill Shepherd got pregnant and Bruce Willis got rich." Shepherd got pregnant in early '87, during the show's third season, although her pregnancy wasn't worked into the show until that fall, during the fourth season. Glenn Gordon Caron, the show's creator, said he couldn't see any way around the pregnancyavoiding the issue would've prevented Shepherd from being shot below chest level, and that would've made scenes with her very static and confined to desks or tables.

Long story short, the first part of the fourth season involved Maddie in Chicago staying with her parents while trying to figure out whether she should go back to David and the detective agency and let him know she was pregnant (the audience, not to mention David, didn't know if it was his baby or third-season guest star Mark Harmon's). Because Maddie was in Chicago, David solved cases with Herbert Viola, a.k.a. "Booger" from Revenge of the Nerds. Not as much fun as Maddie and David solving crimes together, but by that point they'd "done it," which took all of the sexual tension away. It's a slippery slope once the romantic leads on a TV show get together, of course, and unlike Cheers, Moonlighting didn't have a bunch of supporting characters to fall back on in case viewers got sick of the main characters bickering back and forth. All you had were Herbert and Ms. DiPesto, who were funny in small doses, yet they ended up having two episodes to themselves during the fourth season while Shepherd and Willis were indisposed. Two whole episodes—and only 14 were produced that season.

The fourth season was cut short due to the writers' strike, but during the previous season
Moonlighting had only produced 15 episodes, and the one before that produced just 18. It was supposed to deliver 22 episodes a season just like any other show, but it never did, partly due to Glenn Gordon Caron being such a perfectionist and delivering script rewrites at the last minute. (I've read that production on his current show, NBC's Medium, is somewhat disorganized, but he's managed to produce 22 episodes per season so far, as he did for the one and only season of his 1999-2000 CBS series, Now and Again.)

I do like Ms. DiPesto and Herbert Viola more now that I'm older. But when I was in grade school I just wanted to see Maddie and David flirt and watch Bruce Willis be cool and funny. He hasn't been all that funny since Moonlighting, and he wasn't even that funny during the last two seasons. He looked a bit bored, to be honest.

By the way, I lied when I said "long story short." 

Willis was in those early fourth-season episodes much more than Shepherd, and he was reportedly angry that he had to carry the show while shooting Die Hard at the same time. By the tail end of the season Maddie had returned to Los Angeles, but she got married to a stranger on a train on her way back from Chicago, which made almost every fan groan (the grade-school ones anyway). She called it off the day of the "official" wedding, realizing she still loved David, and then the season ended one episode later, with the quickie annulment of Maddie's quickie marriage and a comment on the writers' strike in the last segment. Like other Moonlighting episodes, this one had ended up a few minutes short, so an extra scene was filmed with Maddie and David talking to the audience about how the writers were on strike and they didn't know how to fill the extra time. They ended up making Herbert dance to "Wooly Bully."

When the show returned in December of '88 along with other network shows, Maddie had a miscarriage, which made more fans groan, but at least that concluded the show's soap-opera aspects for the most part. Then it was back to Maddie and David solving crimes together, which I was happy to see when I was in seventh grade, but once I got older I realized it was ridiculous—as Willis said in an interview after the show ended, there was no way those two would've continued to work together after having gone through such a long, stormy affair.

Moonlighting was put on hiatus in February of '89 because its ratings had fallen so far (those ratings probably wouldn't look so bad today, though, compared to what a normal low-ranking network show generates in 2007); it returned two months later, but on Sundays at 8 instead of Tuesdays at 9. The fifth season consisted of 13 episodes, and the last six were cranked out quickly in order to get Moonlighting up to the bare minimum needed for syndication on a cable network—Lifetime showed it in the early '90s, and Bravo aired it earlier this decade, but it never reached regular syndication like, say, Magnum, P.I. or NYPD Blue, which produced more episodes per season over longer runs.

So yeah, the writers' strike didn't help Moonlighting get its momentum back, but it was already in serious trouble before that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

This is only a test dream.

Don't drink a Diet Dr Pepper and eat some chocolate at 10:30 on a Sunday night thinking you'll be up for the next few hours doing some work only to decide an hour and a half later that you want to go to bed because then you'll find that it's hard to get to sleep right away and you'll have dreams about a "71% chance of severe flooding" and this nagging fear that while you're out of town for the weekend your basement apartment will fill up with water.


I woke up Monday morning and remembered that I live on the fifth floor of my building, not in a basement apartment. I see you've gotten the better of me once again, Mr. Subconscious. Well played.

But here's something interesting in terms of my anxiety dreams—recently I had one in which it was opening night of a play and I didn't know my lines yet. How could I? I had been cast earlier that day. I have this kind of anxiety dream pretty often, probably because I perform at least once a week in Chicago doing improv and sketch comedy; in every dream I buy the circumstances hook, line, and sinker. Never do I catch myself during the dream and say to myself, "Robert, there's no way anyone would cast you in a play the afternoon before the show opens." Besides, Mr. Subconscious would probably reply, "Exotic dancers get 'cast' the day of their first show all the time, stupid." He's right, you know. I've seen Showgirls. I know the drill.

The plays I do in my dreams are always community theater productions, which is an important point, because just like recurring high school "test dreams," why should any of our various anxiety dreams ever advance past adolescence? I know nothing about psychology beyond the Psychology 101 class I took at UGA in the fall of '95, but scientifically speaking, is adolescence the time of greatest continual anxiety in a person's life? Everything else is certainly heightened during those years.

I'm drifting away from what I wanted to say, but I am talking about dreams, so drifting seems appropriate. Here's the interesting thing about this recent anxiety dream of mine where I didn't know my lines—I wasn't anxious. For some reason I decided in the dream that since I hadn't had any time to learn the lines and since there was nothing I could do about it, I might as well just improvise and see what happens. Listen and react, which is what acting's all about anyway. And don't worry about what you can't control.

So that's what I did in the dream, and although the other actors knew I was screwing up and the audience could tell something wasn't quite right, I got through it. (Come to think of it, all of the actors were in the audience. And the audience was tiny. Wait, were the actors the entire audience? Wow, just like at the improv shows I do every Sunday night!) The dream didn't end with me panicking before I woke up.

Was the dream a sign that I've finally gained some real confidence onstage and that I should now be totally fearless when improvising (no, there are no lines to memorize beforehand when you do improv shows, but you can still end up speechless and afraid onstage in front of a room of strangers, and that doesn't feel any better than forgetting your lines), or was it a confirmation of the confidence already achieved? Is there a difference? And was the dream really about performing, or was it about gaining confidence in every aspect of life? And are all these questions turning this post into a test dream? Please don't be anxious. You didn't have time to study, so there's no need to worry about what you can't control. Especially not something as uncontrollable as a dream.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"Escape from Cleveland"

That was the subject heading of a spam e-mail I received at work. "U.S. embassy bomb attack 'foiled'" was another one. Both were decoys—inside each e-mail was an ad for Cialis, the anti-impotency pill. However, it would be nice to think that in some far-off land an embassy attack really was foiled because a lonely security guard, valiantly fighting loneliness with a local prostitute, just happened to glance over at a security monitor and notice a suspicious package by the front gate—without Cialis, he would've been dozing off at his desk once again.

So thank you, erection pill. You're a true patriot.

I didn't know until I looked at one of those trick-but-no-treat e-mails (
try explaining to your suspicious, snickering coworkers that you were merely trying to stay abreast of the news) that Cialis offers a chewable brand of its pill called Cialis Soft. Isn't that name counterintuitive? If you want to be hard, you need to swallow a hard pill. No exceptions.

Alright, enough foreplay.

Recently I saw John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981) for the first time. When the sequel, Escape from L.A., came out in 1996, I saw it in the theater because I was reviewing movies that summer for the University of Georgia's radio station, WUOG. I saw a lot of movies in the theater that summer, but I realized at that point that I could never become a professional movie critic, because I liked almost everything I saw.

Of course, that crisis of conscience hasn't prevented certain critics from earning a living and getting their names on plenty of print ads under quotes like "Fred Claus takes its place among the all-time holiday classics!" But those critics are essentially PR flacks/hacks whose expenses at press junkets are paid by the studios in the hopes that the hacks will thank the studios by writing nice things about their bad movies.

But I digress.
The reason I liked almost every movie I saw in the summer of '96 had to do with the fact that I wasn't paying to see the ones I was reviewing. Ignorant people who'll never learn how to behave in public could talk all they wanted, because for once they weren't doing it on my dime!

A friend suggested two years ago that I dedicate this blog to reviewing audiences at movies rather than the movies themselves, because she enjoyed hearing my rants about the Lowest Common Denominator showing up an hour into a screening and acting like they'd just walked into their living room. But the only thing that kind of blog would do is expand the hole in my soul; it wouldn't be the best way to process my ultimately fruitless rage. My movie-audience rants are meant to be funny, but the underlying anger doesn't have as much resonance as, say, a rant about poverty. Then again, who cares about poverty? Not me. Movies cost too much for poor people to see them, so they're not on my radar.

Besides, one of the reasons I get mad at people talking during movies is because I paid to get in just like they did, and when they're talking, they're wasting my money. I know they don't care that they're wasting their own money. And I know I'll never be able to convince them to stay home and flush $20 down the toilet while they flap their gums on the phone, though they'd probably find it to be an equally satisfying experience. But if I didn't have to pay to see movies, I bet I'd be able to block out the surrounding noise a lot better and be much happier in the long run. A happy movie critic isn't necessarily a good critic, however.

I watched Escape from New York on DVD. In my living room. It's possible that the lack of surrounding noise from the aforementioned LCDs helped me notice a giant continuity error in the film, but I bet I would've noticed it even in a noisy theater.

See, near the beginning of the film, the antihero protagonist, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, sounding silly doing a Clint Eastwood impression, but it's hard not to like Russell, so I let it pass), is given 23 hours to find the president of the United States, who's played by Donald Pleasence. The British actor sounds just as British as ever, but Escape is set in a futuristic 1997, where Manhattan has been turned into an island prison, and Americans can presumably elect a foreigner as their commander-in-chief just as long as he's notably creepy the way Pleasence is in most of his roles.

There's also the nice irony of America being so overburdened by crime by 1988, as the film's prologue states, that the federal government would turn Manhattan into a huge prison—reminiscent of my home state's roots as a prison colony for English debtors—and then hand over control of the country to an Englishman 200 years after the American Revolution.

But I digress again. Air Force One has been hijacked and flown into a skyscraper in Manhattan—no, not the World Trade Center, 9/11 conspiracy theorists—but the president was ejected in an escape pod before the plane crashed. Now he's been kidnapped by prisoners, and Plissken, a decorated military officer turned bank robber who's about to be sent to New York for life, is given a chance to win his freedom by rescuing the president. The catch is that if he doesn't get the president to safety in 23 hours, he'll be killed by some sort of microscopic, timer-activated explosive that's been injected into his bloodstream. Hell, with that kind of motivation I'd never miss a deadline, either.

So, when Plissken is told he has 23 hours to find the president, we see the timer on his government-issued watch counting down from 22:57:37. We next see him getting in his government-issued jet glider, presumably a few minutes after we last saw him. But now he's being told that he has 21 hours left to find the president.

Wait ... what happened to the last two hours?

Was a really long scene deleted? Did Plissken take a nap? Lord knows I love to procrastinate, so I'm not trying to pass judgment on you, sir, but this is no time to take a nap!

Then we see the clock in the Ellis Island command center, which is counting down from 20:17:43. That's closer to 20 hours than 21. What the hell was Snake doing for the last two and a half hours?!

If you're going to introduce a ticking clock in a story, you have to stick with it. For the sake of suspense you can delay the inevitable here and there as the clock gets closer to zero, but why shave off two hours right at the beginning without any explanation? Otherwise the first two episodes of every season of 24 should feature Jack Bauer checking his e-mail and drinking coffee at CTU headquarters.

You'd think this sort of continuity mistake could've been fixed in postproduction by rerecording a line or two of dialogue and inserting a new shot of the countdown clock, but it wasn't. Has anyone out there heard John Carpenter explain the reason for this error, possibly on an older DVD or laserdisc that contains a commentary track?

Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), and The Fog (1980) have all been remade in this decade, and a remake of Escape from New York is currently in development. (After Escape, Carpenter and Russell made 1982's The Thing, a remake of 1951's The Thing from Another World.) The remake obviously won't be set in 1997, but since it will presumably have a higher budget than the original, somebody should take the time to make sure the script makes better use of its time.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Stephen Thomas Erlewine sums up the Goo Goo Dolls in 348 words.

I really like Stephen Thomas Erlewine's album reviews at, even if he praises so many new albums that I sometimes end up with the feeling that he's secretly in cahoots with the major labels. Then again, there's nothing wrong with being positive and looking on the bright side of things as much as you can, and if I wanted to stick with my conspiracy theory I'd be forced to concede that Erlewine's just as much in cahoots with indie labels as he is with the majors.

Below is his not-so-positive review of the Goo Goo Dolls' Greatest Hits, Volume One: The Singles (Warner Bros.). I like a few of the band's songs, especially "Name," but Erlewine hits the nail right on the head.
Hard to believe it, but at one point all the Goo Goo Dolls ever wanted to be was the Replacements—nothing more than a ragged band playing kickass rock & roll along with the occasional heartbroken ballad. Of course, they were never as chaotic as the 'Mats; they were good guys where Paul Westerberg and company were ornery, unpredictable artists, prone to self-sabotage, legendarily throwing away their potential breakthrough gig on Saturday Night Live.
That wasn't the Goo Goo Dolls. They never met an opportunity they didn't turn down, slowly morphing from baby Replacements to the cheerful corporate rockers showcased on this 2007 compilation, Greatest Hits, Vol. 1: The Singles. This 14-track collection ignores the entire first act of the band's history, picking up the tale with 1995's A Boy Named Goo, which not so coincidentally is where the band abandoned its 'Mats aspiration and started being the alt-rock band that played by the rules (even then, Boy's breakthrough hit, "Name," is re-recorded here, the better to make it fit with the placid pop of their later years). Where all their peers shunned power ballads, the Goo Goo Dolls embraced them, slowly turning into a group that specialized in soaring ballads and anthems with no discernible roots: this was merely modern rock that existed in the moment, usually moments that occurred in offices, malls, waiting rooms, and Michael Bay's Transformers.
Surely there was an audience for this, as the group ruled the adult Top 40 charts throughout the 2000s without ever having a single that truly made waves in the pop charts, the way "Name," "Iris," and "Slide" did in the late '90s. It wasn't for lack of trying, though: the Dolls kept refining and smoothing that blueprint out, so each progressive year turned more anonymous. But they were reliable, and they satisfied fans, many of whom would probably never have even known the name Westerberg, not even as the name of the high school in Heathers. For those fans, this Greatest Hits will satisfy, as it has all those hits that sound the same, and nothing else. —Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Friday, November 9, 2007

Railroad Rod!

Recently we received some PR at work about a popular singer and his favorite hobby.
Rod Stewart and model trains
The famed singer raises the curtain on his 23- x 124-foot model railroad layout for Model Railroader magazine.
WAUKESHA, WI — Hall of fame rock-n-roller Rod Stewart unwinds after a concert by kitbashing and scratchbuilding. These terms may sound like code words that explain the mysterious antics of a world-famous celebrity, but instead they describe techniques for one of the world's most popular hobbies: model railroading.
The acclaimed songwriter of hits like "Reason to Believe" and "Maggie May" contacted Model Railroader magazine to talk about his other achievement, "Grand Street & Three Rivers Railroad."

Stewart offered Model Railroader magazine exclusive access to his 1,500-square-foot model-train layout that takes up the third floor of his Beverly Hills home. The visit to his home and interview with Stewart resulted in a cover story, "Rod Stewart's Three Rivers City," for the December 2007 issue of Model Railroader, the world's best-selling magazine dedicated to the hobby. The December 2007 issue hits newsstands November 6. 
"I'm proud to be a railway modeler," Stewart said. "It means more to me to be on the cover of Model Railroader than to be on the cover of a music magazine."   

I also liked this little portion of the Model Railroader PR:
More famous model railroaders
What do Rod Stewart, Rev. Lovejoy, Joe DiMaggio, and Frank Sinatra have in common? They're all toy train enthusiasts. Find out other members of the top 10 celebrity model railroaders as compiled by the editors of Model Railroader
Ohhhhh, so they're all toy train enthusiasts. See, I knew that DiMaggio and Sinatra are both dead, so that's one thing those guys have in common. And I knew that Rod Stewart can be animated when he's performing, but that doesn't make him an animated character like The Simpsons' Rev. Lovejoy. And just as the First Church of Springfield's pastor isn't real, neither is that rumor from the '70s about Stewart's stomach being pumped and semen being part of the inventory. But you're telling me that all of these celebrities, whether living, dead, or entirely fictional, are toy train enthusiasts, Model Railroader? I never would've guessed!

It turns out that Terje Fjelde, my friend from the Norwegian part of the blogosphere, has also been allowed exclusive access to Rod Stewart's toy train set, and he's not even a professional journalist—he's just Norwegian. Way to go, Terje! And thanks for sending along the photo below. It looks like Rod didn't like it when you touched his miniatures. Did you tell him it was merely a love touch?

Monday, October 29, 2007

You're a mean one, Billy Bob.

Last September Billy Bob Thornton starred in School for Scoundrels, in which he played a prickish teacher of some sort. This September he starred in Mr. Woodcock, in which he played a prickish teacher of some sort. (The title is a clue, see.) At first glance—and I'm not ruling out that glance being an overtired or even tipsy oneit was easy to think that the ads for Mr. Woodcock were actually ads for a deluxe-edition School for Scoundrels DVD. A three-hour director's cut of the film, maybe?

Nope, different movies, yet Thornton has been gravitating to comedies where he plays mean bastards for a while now. The first was 2003's
Bad Santa. The 2005 remake of The Bad News Bears (which lost its "The" for the remake) was number two, and School for Scoundrels and Mr. Woodcock round out the unofficial tetralogy (fancy word alert!). Bad Santa was somewhat of a sleeper hit, grossing $60 million, but the other three films didn't stay in theaters very long. Then again, the days of Star Wars playing at your local four-screen theater for almost an entire year are long gone. Today even a $300 million hit like Transformers is out on video just three months after it opens in theaters.

I haven't seen any of Thornton's bastard movies, so I can't say how effective he is as a bastard, but if he plays one again I hope he promotes the movie by going to people's houses, drinking all their hard liquor, smashing their priceless family heirlooms, molesting their pets, and, worst of all, leaving the toilet seat up. He won't vacate the premises until you promise to go see his new bastard movie. While you're at the theater he'll stay in your house and try on your underwear, draw mustaches on all your family photos, download copyrighted music onto your computer, spill beverages on your books and CDs, molest your pets again for old times' sake, and, worst of all, thumb through your magazines. That's just plain mean!

Did you know Thornton has put out four albums since 2001? The latest is Beautiful Door, which came out in July. If you don't buy it, Billy Bob may bust down the beautiful front door of your tastefully furnished home and make you buy it. Don't piss him off. You wouldn't like him when he's bastard-ish.

(One more thing about School for Scoundrels: when it came out last year, the TV ads featured Ben Stiller, who appeared to have a small part in the film, but his name wasn't anywhere to be seen in the print ads. Why feature him prominently in the TV ad campaign but not the print one? I'm guessing it's because MGM, the distributor, and the Weinstein Company, who produced the film, needed all the help they could get luring people into theaters after weak focus-group screenings, and if that meant exploiting Stiller's popularity for an extended cameo that he probably did as a favor to the film's director, Starsky & Hutch's Todd Phillips, then so be it.)


My friend Beau sent me the following mock motivational posters. They're funny 'cause they're true.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Have you heard Bill Withers's new ringle?

Yep, I said "ringle." Earlier today I received an e-mail from ...

As someone who has purchased or rated music by Bill Withers, you might like to know that Ain't No Sunshine [Ringle] will be released on November 6, 2007.

What's a Ringle? A Ringle is a CD with 2-3 tracks that also includes a ringtone of a hit track delivered directly to your cell phone. A Ringle may also include additional bonus content such as mobile wallpaper and alternate downloadable content for your computer if you have a phone which is not compatible with Ringles.

This is the first I've heard of ringles. What I'm curious about is whether or not you can buy the whole package
—the songs "Ain't No Sunshine," "Harlem," and "Sweet Wanomi," all of which are worth having, plus the "Ain't No Sunshine" ringtone—on iTunes, therefore bypassing the CD. I wouldn't go that route, but "the kids" most likely would since they (presumably) have no sentimental attachment to CDs and probably won't care if CDs become obsolete, just as I didn't care when vinyl became obsolete in the late '80s, which is when I started to buy music. Then again, "the kids" probably aren't dying to have Bill Withers's 1971 classic coming out of their cell phones anyway. Not unless someone like Lil Wayne samples it.

I bought albums solely on cassette from 1987 to 1990, but the only tapes I mourn are the blank ones I used
—and which I still own and listen to, although not as often as I'd likenot the flimsy ones produced by record labels that often became unwound or warped within what seemed like the first dozen plays. (I do remember listening to some of my cassettes every day after school for months at a time, so maybe I'm to blame for the shortened life span of cassettes like Simply Red's Picture Book and George Benson's Breezin'.)

I still have some of my album cassettes from the '80s and '90s, but I'm afraid to play most of them these days for fear it might be the last time. And my cassette singles, or "cassingles," are ticking time bombs as far as I'm concerned. Those really did begin to warp after just a few listens.

Many vinyl enthusiasts miss the days of LPs like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which gave buyers plenty to look at on the cover. CDs are certainly smaller than LPs, but at least you're still seeing cover art in a square shape. Cassettes offered a square image shoved into a rectangular space a dozen times smaller, and even then the cover art sometimes only occupied two-thirds of the cover
I bought four of Steely Dan's albums on cassette back in '88, and each one had Steely Dan's name and the album's name printed below the cover art on a blue background, which was somewhat helpful considering that the writing on the cover art was almost too small to read sometimes. Cassettes were also worse than LPs and CDs because you were often given zero liner notes, especially with older albums like Steely Dan's.

Wait, I'm supposed to be talking about ringles. But my phone doesn't even play ringtones, so I've already lost interest. However, I am interested in hearing "Sweet Wanomi" again. I'm going to go home right now and listen to it, on a blank tape from last year.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

no mo'

Momentum is not my friend. Or maybe it's the other way around. Yeah, it probably is the other way around—just when momentum gets going, I abandon it. Sorry about that, mo'. When I go out of town for a weekend, I get behind on everything for about two weeks, not just the three days I'm away from home.

I haven't really posted anything new here since September 16. That was over a month ago. And writing about Chris Tucker and his Rush Hour paychecks after mid-August, or writing about summer movies after Labor Day, seems a little pathetic at this point, but I will finish those posts ... at some point. The people who mostly put up YouTube clips and a sentence or two on their blogs are smart
—they get in and get out quickly, and within a few hours everyone knows what they think about Britney Spears's legal troubles. I'm proud of my long-windedness, but it doesn't help when trying to keep this blog updated on a regular basis.

I did see something exciting yesterday afternoon, though. I was watching a Magnum, P.I. rerun on Me TV at 1:00 (more on Magnum later, but I always say "more later," don't I?) when, during a commercial, I flipped around and came across a rerun of Soul Train on WGN. There on the screen was none other than Bunny Sigler, who I wrote about at Jefitoblog back in June. Now, what's interesting here is that I rarely turn to WGN when channel surfing, so it was pure luck that I caught Sigler on Soul Train performing "That's How Long I'll Be Loving You" and, later in the show, "Things Are Gonna Get Better." (Both songs are included on the 1996 compilation The Best of Bunny Sigler: Sweeter Than the Berry, which you can read more about below.)

I'm not going to lie and say that Sigler's performances were not to be missed. Just like on American Bandstand, performers on Soul Train lip-synched their songs, but were the songs always cut off around the two-minute mark? Both of Sigler's numbers were faded out, as were those of the Staple Singers, who were the other guests on Soul Train's June 8, 1974, show. Roebuck "Pops" Staples introduced each of his singing daughters by name and by star sign, in case you wanted to keep score at home.

Host Don Cornelius allowed the Soul Train dancers to ask the Staple Singers some questions; one dancer named Bobby Washington charmingly stumbled his way through a question for Mavis Staples about whether she enjoyed singing lead on so many of the group's songs. Her response was, essentially, "Yes, it feels good." But haven't we all asked a question that ended up being longer than the answer, and wasn't the answer usually coming from a member of the opposite sex? Yes, but for most of us the question wasn't asked on national television and then re-run 33 years later for our children (and possibly grandchildren) to see.

And now, as decreed by Mr. Cornelius, NO MORE QUESTIONS! It's time for the Staple Singers to pretend like they're singing and for the dancers to actually dance, but self-consciously so, since they're on camera. (Hi, mom!)

In the mid- to late '90s, before VH1 became the carnival sideshow that it is today, it aired reruns of The Midnight Special and American Bandstand, because at the time '70s nostalgia was very big. I still have some Midnight Special performances on tape from those days, and John Travolta's performance of his 1976 single "Let Her In" on Bandstand is burned into my memory. (Was it considered attractive in the mid-'70s for men to have potbellies? If not, then no one told Travolta.) But where were the Soul Train reruns? VH1 dropped the ball, so pick it up, BET! But so far, no such luck.

That's where you come in, Me TV. Soul Train started in Chicago in 1970 before moving to Los Angeles the following year, just as American Bandstand moved to L.A. in 1964
after 12 years in Philadelphia. Guess what station Soul Train was on in Chicago before becoming syndicated? WCIU, the same channel that now operates Me TV.

It was meant to be, Me. Besides, you're already showing Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Cosby Show in your prime-time lineup
. It wouldn't hurt to add another show aimed at black audiences to the mix.

Below is a write-up of Bunny Sigler's 1996 Sony/Legacy compilation, which originally appeared on Jefitoblog as part of its "Cutouts Gone Wild!" series on June 28, 2007.

Bunny Sigler, The Best of Bunny Sigler: Sweeter Than the Berry (1996)

Memphis and Detroit have nothing to be ashamed about, but for me, the most exciting soul music came out of Philadelphia in the 1970s, particularly the strings-laden, socially conscious kind produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia International Records, home to artists like the O'Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, and Bunny Sigler. (Here's where you say, "Bunny who?" Here's where I repeat his name.)

Sigler never scored huge crossover hits like those other artists did, but as Epic/Legacy's retrospective of his years at PIR proves, it wasn't for a lack of trying. He did have a #22 pop hit in 1967 with "Let the Good Times Roll/Feel So Good" on the Cameo Parkway label, but by '68 the label had expired. Unfortunately, Sigler's contract hadn't, and until it did, he wasn't allowed to record for anyone else. Frustrated by this sudden halt in his career, he started hanging out at the offices of Gamble and Huff, who were friends of his, and chose to vent his frustration by practicing karate moves in the hallways, which scared visitors. In order to get Sigler out of the halls and away from clients, Gamble and Huff moved him into a room with a staff writer and put him to work.

As a writer at PIR, Sigler penned O'Jays classics like "When the World's at Peace" (with Gamble and Phil Hurtt) and "You Got Your Hooks in Me," and on
Sweeter Than the Berry he covers the group's big hit "Love Train," emphasizing its gospel foundation over seven minutes of impassioned vocals. (No slouch when it comes to singing, Sigler was nicknamed "Mr. Emotion" in his early years.)

Sweeter Than the Berry also features the tender "Regina"
(download), which must've sounded mighty fine coming out of AM radios in 1972, and the upbeat love songs "Keep Smilin'" (download) and "Things Are Gonna Get Better" (download). But my favorite tracks may be the most lighthearted ones: the 1975 Christmas jam "Jingle Bells [Part I]" (download); "I Lied" (download), in which Sigler makes screeching-tire noises over the sound of screeching tires; and the infectiously fun and funky "Shake Your Booty" (download). I defy you to remain seated starting around the two-minute mark of this song as Sigler begins counting off numbers and his backing band, Instant Funk, matches him with horn blasts for every digit. High-pitched background chatter from Sigler's "nieces and nephews" is also thrown into the mix, and there's a false ending, which is followed by "Uncle Bunny" finally calling it quits, which is then followed by another minute of music. It's hard to keep a great song down.

If it sounds like I'm making Sigler out to be the Ray Stevens of Philly soul, that's not my intention. Instead he's the guy at the party gently telling friends like Gamble and Huff to lighten up, have a drink, dance a little. For every "For the Love of Money" or "Am I Black Enough for You?," Billy Paul's brilliant but commercially disastrous follow-up to the #1 "Me and Mrs. Jones" (Gamble pushed for it to be a single, much to Paul's dismay), Philadelphia International needed a song like "Shake Your Booty" in its catalog to remind everyone that, well, things are gonna get better. And until they do, it can't hurt to laugh.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Evan Dando and the Lemonheads, Part Two

Below is the second part of the Lemonheads/Evan Dando album guide I cowrote with Ken Sumka back in July for Jefitoblog. Part one can be found here.

Come On Feel the Lemonheads (1993)

Robert: Once It's a Shame About Ray and its after-the-fact single "Mrs. Robinson" took off in the fall of '92, the media noticed what a nice face Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando had, and promptly began to overexpose him as a heartthrob for teenage girls. Dando seemed happy to oblige, appearing in People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" issue in '93, smooching actress Adrienne Shelly on the cover of Spin, chatting it up with Regis and Kathie Lee on daytime TV, and dropping in for a cameo at the end of Ben Stiller's Reality Bites. Dando also had a tendency to say much more than he needed to in interviews, especially when it came to his recreational drug use. ("He's never been one to edit anything that went through his brain," former Lemonheads bassist Jesse Peretz told Melody Maker.)

But you know what? If Dando looked more like Paul Westerberg or Bob Mould, two of his early songwriting influences, I bet he wouldn't have received so many slings and arrows from critics and alternative-music fans, because at his best his lyrics are on par with those of Westerberg in his mid-'80s prime. It's not Dando's fault he's photogenic. But the damage was already done: by the spring of '94 a zine called Die Evan Dando, Die had been published, and once Kurt Cobain did die that April, the world at large had had enough of Boston's resident alterna-hunk and his band's "bubblegrunge" music (an unfair and inaccurate label).

But I digress. The Lemonheads' sixth LP cribs its title from Slade's 1973 hit "Cum On Feel the Noize," and was rushed onto shelves 16 months after Ray's release to capitalize on the Lemonheads' newfound popularity and Dando's teen-dream appeal. The original cover art was even replaced in order to show off his exquisitely square jaw. Come On Feel was recorded in the middle of two straight years of touring: songs like "Paid to Smile" and "You Can Take It With You" ("Found myself a breathing place / Got room to stand up straight / And if I wanna lay around I can") make it clear that the group's nonstop schedule had started to wear on Dando. And his nonstop drug intake, which was wearing on everyone around him, is alluded to in the songs "Style" ("Don't wanna get stoned / But I don't wanna not get stoned") and "Rick James Style," featuring guest vocals by the Super Freak himself.

Early versions of "Into Your Arms," "Dawn Can't Decide," and "Being Around" had already shown up as Ray B-sides, and there's a 15-minute waste of space at the end of the album called "The Jello Fund." Despite all that, Come On Feel is a worthy follow-up to Ray, with more of Dando's three-minutes-or-less pop wonders filled with big hooks, memorable melodies, warm vocals, and witty lyrics. Unfortunately, Atlantic and new fans were looking for a repeat of Ray, and Come On Feel didn't have the same impact. As for older fans, it felt like the Lemonheads had strayed a little too far from their roots. (They officially added "The" to the front of their name in '93. The nerve!)

One particular standout is "Big Gay Heart," which can be read as a pro-tolerance anthem or just a plea for romantic acceptance in general: "Why can't you look after yourself and not down on me / Do you have to try to piss me off just 'cause I'm easy to please?" The song contains pedal-steel accompaniment by "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers, but bassist Nic Dalton, who didn't hear the completed album until it was already in stores, stated that he thought Kleinow's contribution hurt the song.

Ken: With a little judicious editing, this album could've been a satisfying sequel to Ray; instead it comes off bloated in spots. This happens sometimes when a band that's used to working within the time constraints of two sides of vinyl tries to "stretch out" on CD. "Rest Assured" and "Into Your Arms" are two gems, however, and "Being Around" has a goofy charm.

Car Button Cloth (1996)

Robert: After three years of continued drug abuse, a stint in rehab, a role as Liv Tyler's boyfriend in the film Heavy, time spent hanging out on the road with Oasis, and appearances on albums like Mike Watt's Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, Kirsty MacColl's Galore, and the Empire Records soundtrack, Dando—and the Lemonheads—returned with Car Button Cloth. Dando was the only member left from the previous lineup, making this album, in some ways, his version of Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers or the Replacements' All Shook Down: a chance to give it one more try under his band's name before going solo. Joining him in the studio were Bill Gibson on bass and Patrick Murphy (a.k.a. Murph of Dinosaur Jr.) on drums, with John Strohm rejoining the band on rhythm guitar for the tour.

Car Button Cloth, like any of the band's other non-Ray offerings up to that point, is a patchwork affair. (Dando himself has labeled most of the Lemonheads' albums as "schizophrenic.") It's still a great listen, partly thanks to well-chosen covers like Come On Feel writing partner Tom Morgan's "The Outdoor Type" and "Tenderfoot" (cowritten by Adam Young), but all those puzzle pieces behind the couch don't quite fit together. The album kicks off with two brilliant singles, "It's All True" and "If I Could Talk I'd Tell You," that might've piqued the curiosity of those aforementioned teenage girls if they were still listening (in their dorm rooms at this point), but the somewhat sinister "Break Me," "Hospital," and "Losing Your Mind" ("What a comfort to find out you're losing your mind / And you re-realize that it's not the first time")—and an electrified rendition of the murder ballad "Knoxville Girl"—demonstrate that Dando's no longer interested in being a Tiger Beat pinup.

The Lemonheads pleasantly kill some time with "6ix," a shout-out to Gwyneth Paltrow and Real People's Skip Stephenson, and "C'mon Daddy," inspired by Todd Rundgren in more ways than one. But as Dando says midway through the album, "Something's Missing" ("I ain't quiet deep inside / I ain't even on my side"), and it's not just "Purple Parallelogram," a track he wrote with Noel Gallagher that was removed from Car Button Cloth at the last second at Gallagher's insistence. Dando says he didn't mind since he regarded the track as a throwaway at best.

Car Button Cloth is still my favorite Lemonheads album. Right around the time that my Great Big Todd Rundgren Obsession of 1996 was beginning to fade, my college roommate received the new Lemonheads CD for Christmas, and I listened out of curiosity after reading an odd interview with Dando in Rolling Stone. My Great Big Obsession of 1997 had begun: after just a couple of listens I was a fan of Dando's voice and words, and I regretted my snap judgment of him as nothing but a pretty boy a few years earlier. I started winding my way backward through the Lemonheads' discography, and waited for news of their next album. It turned out I was in for a long, long wait.

Ken: I had been on board since almost day one with the Lemonheads, so Car Button Cloth was a slight disappointment for me, yet there are still some nice moments on it. "It's All True," "If I Could Talk," and "The Outdoor Type" are the representatives from this album that I still have on my iPod.

Live at the Brattle Theatre/Griffith Sunset EP (2001)

Robert: Car Button Cloth's cover includes the sentence "All of these things sank." The album followed suit—it sold nowhere near the amount that the gold-certified Ray and Come On Feel did just a few years earlier. After the Car Button Cloth tour ended in the summer of '97, Dando took a long break from writing and recording, although he did continue touring on his own, and he didn't disappear from recording studios altogether: he popped up on the 2001 Blake Babies reunion album and recorded a single with Ben Lee, Cheap Trick's Tom Petersson, and actor-musician Jason Schwartzman under the no-frills name of Dando Lee Petersson Schwartzman.

On October 18, 2000, Dando played a show at the Brattle Theatre in Boston that was recorded for a live album. The resulting LP came out in Australia a year later and was packaged with a bonus EP of country covers coproduced by Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, among others. Live at the Brattle Theatre presents a strong acoustic run through the Lemonheads' catalog, with "Half the Time" and a Hammond-free "My Drug Buddy" being two of the highlights. After five years away it was comforting to hear Dando's golden throat still in good shape, even if he wasn't hitting all of the high notes anymore. The Griffith Sunset EP gives fans heartsick interpretations of John Prine's "Sam Stone" and the Louvin Brothers' "My Baby's Gone."

Baby I'm Bored (2003)

Robert: Finally, six and a half years after Car Button Cloth, Dando returned with new songs, but this time as a solo act, and swearing that the Lemonheads were dead as a recording entity. Note the similar covers, however, of Baby I'm Bored (that's Dando's wife, Elizabeth Moses, staring into the camera lens) and Hate Your Friends. An acknowledgement of a new beginning or a sign of things to come?

Recorded in various studios between '99 and '02, Baby I'm Bored saw Dando teaming up with Car Button Cloth producer Bryce Goggin on seven tracks and multihyphenate Jon Brion on songs like "Stop My Head," "Shots Is Fired," and "It Looks Like You," all cowritten by Brion to boot. Ben Lee, who wrote the tongue-in-cheek Dando tribute "I Wish I Was Him" when he was barely out of puberty, penned two tracks on Baby I'm Bored specifically for his friend to sing, and cowrote, with Dando and Tom Morgan, the cleverly titled "The Same Thing You Thought Hard About Is the Same Part I Can Live Without."

The theme of regret shows up again and again in the lyrics ("Some of the ground you gained / Lost instead" … "Whatever part of you that's been calling the shots is fired" ... "I can't believe how far I slid / I guess I had to see" ... "All my life / I thought I needed all the things I didn't need at all"), so it's tempting to infer that Dando's carefree drug use in the '80s and '90s had finally caught up with him, as evidenced by "Why Do You Do This to Yourself?" But in an era in which celebrities set aside a three-day weekend for a visit to rehab and then bravely tell E! News that they've conquered their demons, Dando has never made any sort of mea culpa for the various substances he's abused over the years—heroin, crack, LSD, etc. (He has admitted that he became an alcoholic.) In the end it's his business, not ours, and as the late comedian Bill Hicks once said, "I had a great time doing drugs. Sorry. Never murdered anyone, never robbed anyone, never raped anyone, never beat anyone. Never lost a job, a car, a house, a wife, or kids. Laughed my ass off, and went about my day."

Baby I'm Bored was by no means a chart topper, but it did earn good reviews, and Dando sounded focused in concert (Juliana Hatfield joined him on bass for one leg of the tour). Fans crossed their fingers that he wouldn't take another six and a half years to deliver a new studio album.

Ken: Gee, Dando sure made it easy for snarky reviewers to pan this record: "You're bored? So are we, Evan." This album was a "grower" for me. After initial listenings I shelved it and didn't go back to it for months; then I revisited it and found some of its hidden charms, not the least of which is Jon Brion's production. Brion could make even Rob Thomas interesting if he tried (hmm, there's a thought), and certainly helps out here with sparse but well-chosen instrumentation. The highlights are tracks like "Waking Up," with cowriting credit and backing vocals by Royston Langdon (of Spacehog and impregnating-Liv-Tyler fame), and the excellent "It Looks Like You."

The Lemonheads (2006)

Robert: Much was made of Dando collaborating with former Descendents members Bill Stevenson (drums) and Karl Alvarez (bass) for last year's "reunion album" (but let the record and its liner notes show that Josh Lattanzi plays bass on 4 of the 11 songs). Dando said he decided to revive his former band's name after hearing about a festival in Brazil in 2004 that featured South American bands playing their favorite Lemonheads songs. He also said he got tired of pushing T-shirts with his own name on them.

Dando delves into familiar topics—regrets, narcotics—on the Lemonheads' eighth album, but there's also a new focus on mortality and getting older (Dando turned 40 back in March), as well as politics: "Let's Just Laugh" is about enduring the remainder of Bush II's presidency. The Lemonheads is arguably the group's most consistent album since It's a Shame About Ray, so I was disappointed when I learned that some of the best songs on it weren't written by Dando. Stevenson contributes "Become the Enemy" and "Steve's Boy" ("Steve's boy won't let you die / Alone in the desert with fear in your eyes / You can't break me / You can't make me go away"), and Tom Morgan's "No Backbone" is dusted off from a 1997 Smudge collection along with "Baby's Home." But Dando's "Black Gown," "Pittsburgh," and "Poughkeepsie" show that he still knows how to compose short, sharp blasts of exceptional pop-rock.

I actually didn't like The Lemonheads when I first heard an advance copy last summer, and that surprised me—Dando's melodies and vocals almost always provide instant gratification. His voice sounded tired and even a little bored on the first few spins, but then I noticed how unified the album's overall sound is, and the hooks began to sink in. (However, it's still a step down from the triumphant Baby I'm Bored.) For those who bought It's a Shame About Ray and Come On Feel the Lemonheads in the early '90s but never strayed elsewhere in the band's catalog, this self-titled effort won't make them start exploring anew, but for long-term fans it's been nice hearing Dando make noise under the Lemonheads' moniker once again. Whichever delivery system he chooses for putting out new music in the future, I'll be listening.

Ken: I too was very excited about the possibility of a Lemonheads reunion—if in name only—especially the prospect of Dando playing with former members of the Descendents (and power-poppers All). My initial impression of the record was lukewarm as well, but repeat listens certainly improved my opinion; the country-tinged murder ballad "Baby's Home" is pretty harrowing. The subsequent tour, costarring Vess Ruhtenberg and Devon Ashley, the latest Lemonheads rhythm section, further solidified those thoughts.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Evan Dando and the Lemonheads, Part One

Below is the first part of the Lemonheads/Evan Dando album guide I cowrote with Ken Sumka back in July for Jefitoblog.

Evan Dando and Ben Deily, upper-middle-class teenagers from the Boston suburbs, formed the Lemonheads with classmate Jesse Peretz in 1986 during their senior year of high school. In the beginning Dando and Deily would switch off on drums for each other's songs, with Peretz on bass. They started out emulating the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Dinosaur Jr. and gradually added Gram Parsons and Hank Williams to their list of influences under the leadership of Dando, who took the reins in '89 and became the band's one constant member as other players drifted in and out.

You may only know the Lemonheads as camera-friendly dudes who had a hit covering "Mrs. Robinson" during the final months of George Bush Sr.'s presidency. Lucky for you—and them—there's much more to the story.

Hate Your Friends (1987)

Ken: While there are certainly plenty of debuts that knock the ball out of the park, most hint at what is yet to come. Hate Your Friends falls into the latter category: it displays a keen knack for concise punk-pop songs by both Dando and Deily, but it falls short of perfection. Deily wrote the arguably "punkier" stuff, including the gem "Second Chance," which hides a sweet, lovelorn/kiss-off lyric under a fuzzy guitar part and catchy chorus. Another great Deily cut, "Uhhh," treads similar ground—a crunchy riff over "relationship gone south" material. Dando's "Don't Tell Yourself" tries desperately to crawl out from a plodding drumbeat and almost succeeds, and "Nothing True" certainly winks at the Replacements but maintains Dando's own sensibilities. Also, the time-honored Lemonheads tradition of cheeky covers is born with a 90-second version of "Amazing Grace." Hate Your Friends contains some filler, but a good three-quarters of this debut hits the mark.

Robert: Taang!'s 1992 reissue added 7 tracks to the original album's 13, including songs from the band's 1986 EP, Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners, and outtakes that eventually appeared on their third album, Lick. But even with 20 songs, the album's over in about 35 minutes. (There's also Create Your Friends, a compilation that offers the Lemonheads' first two albums on one disc and whose title niftily predicts the MySpace era.) Dando's gift for incisive, memorable lyrics pops up for the first time on the title track ("You've got problems you can't solve / It's enough to make you start to hate your friends"), and Deily's nasally vocals are a good match for the band's snotty punk-lite songs.

Creator (1988)

Ken: Creator saw the welcome addition of John Strohm (Blake Babies, Antenna) on drums after Doug Trachten, who was behind the kit for half of Hate Your Friends, was let go. Deily contributes eight songs here (compared to three by Dando), including the spooky "Burial Ground" and tempo-shifting "Sunday." Dando's much-improved songwriting chops are on full display in "Die Right Now," with a twin-guitar intro that plunges headlong into a searing riff and solo that would make J Mascis proud. "Clang Bang Clang" introduces Dando's fascination with Charles Manson—the song "borrows" its title and a few lyrics from Charlie—and "Helter Skelter's" #1 fan pops up again via a cover of his song "Your Home Is Where You're Happy." Like the Replacements had done a few years earlier, Kiss gets covered, though the Lemonheads opt for 1977's "Plaster Caster."

Robert: Creator is the group's most disposable album, but Dando's rich baritone commands attention on the Manson cover; he's always been a gifted interpreter of other performers' songs, even those of serial killers. Deily works hard here, but his songwriting doesn't gain any traction. Following the album's release in the summer of '88, the Lemonheads disbanded after a performance in which Dando replaced his guitar solo in each song—even if one wasn't required—with the riff from Guns n' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine."

Lick (1989)

Ken: The core of Dando/Deily/ Peretz was still intact after what turned out to be only a temporary break-up, but John Strohm left once Creator was done to focus on Blake Babies, which featured Dando on bass during the Lemonheads' hiatus. With Strohm gone, Dando moved to drums, and Bullet LaVolta's Corey Loog Brennan was added on guitar. These days he's Dr. Brennan, Ph.D., Strohm's a lawyer in Alabama, Deily's in PR and advertising, and Peretz is a film director whose credits include The Chateau (2002) and The Ex (2007).

Lick gets under way with Dando's jangly "Mallo Cup," which at just two minutes and 11 seconds manages to distill everything great about the band: wistful lyrics ("Here I am outside your house at 3 AM / Trying to think you out of bed"), melodic verses, and a buzz-saw chorus. Deily contributes a few more of his great jilted-kid songs with "Anyway" and the terrific "Ever," which makes excellent use of his raspy voice. Things take an odd turn with the mostly-sung-in-Italian "Cazzo di Ferro," about Raymond Burr, of all people. The attention getter here—at least on college radio in '89—is a fairly straight reading of Suzanne Vega's earnest child-abuse hit "Luka" (recorded during the sessions for Creator). Nashville chestnut "Strange" (Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson) also gets a revved-up treatment. With favorable reviews and brisk sales, the tide was shifting, and major labels started beckoning.

Robert: When a summer tour of Europe was offered to them, the Lemonheads re-formed just a few months after breaking up. Taang! wanted them to record a new album before the tour, but Dando had writer's block and Deily was becoming more and more estranged from his bandmates, so Lick was filled out with the Hate Your Friends leftovers "Sad Girl" and "Ever," plus new versions of early songs like "Glad I Don't Know." (The 1992 reissue rescued "Mad," a Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners orphan, and "Strange" from the "Luka" seven-inch.) Despite its cut-and-paste nature, Lick somehow manages to hang together and rawk out in unexpected ways. During their tour, the band—minus Deily, who bowed out as soon as Lick was finished—made a stop in the Netherlands and played a few songs on VPRO, where Brennan posed as Dando for an interview with an unsuspecting Dutch DJ.

Favorite Spanish Dishes EP (1990)

Ken: Ah, the covers/odds-'n'-sods stopgap EP. What fun. Dando and co. kick it off with a sprightly cover of the Mike Nesmith-penned Stone Poneys/Linda Ronstadt cut "Different Drum," followed by a so-so Dando original ("Paint") and the acoustic "Ride With Me" (with a Manson sound clip thrown in for good measure). Homage/scorn is heaped upon fellow Bostonians NKOTB with a funny but accurate cover of the massive hit "Step by Step," and the record closes with the Misfits' "Skulls." There's nothing essential here, but it's still fun.

Robert: Originally released in Europe before Lovey, the Lemonheads' first album for Atlantic Records, the three-song EP was expanded to five tracks for American release in '91. Dando, a music geek from an early age, gives a brief tour of his record collection here, but his own "Paint" is also a winner, and many fans prefer the acoustic version of "Ride With Me" to Lovey's electric one.

Lovey (1990)

Ken: Signed to Atlantic by former A&R scout (and current Thrill Jockey Records owner) Bettina Richards, the band benefited greatly from a major-label budget. After a revolving cast of drummers that included Trachten, Strohm, Dando, Deily, and even a guy who performed under the name of Johnny Bravo, David Ryan was recruited for Lovey and was a quantum leap forward in the percussion department. Peretz stayed put on bass, and Brennan cowrote two songs and made contributions on guitar. With no-nonsense production from Paul Q. Kolderie, Ryan's solid drumming, and much-improved sound quality, Lovey finally presents the Lemonheads how they should sound.

The opener, "Ballarat," obliquely references Manson again (the Manson Family set up camp in Ballarat, California, for a while) but also asserts that this is a different band, one that rocks with a renewed vigor. "Half the Time" revisits the jangle of "Mallo Cup," and "Ride With Me" is the group's best ballad yet. "Li'l Seed" is a NORML rallying cry with some great guitar work from Brennan. "Stove" is the kind of song that became second nature to Dando, a simple story about an everyday happening—the replacement of a stove—but it's infused with small details that bring the song to life. "Left for Dead" is a slightly cleaner retread of "Clang Bang Clang" from Creator, and Dando shows his affection for Gram Parsons with a cover of "Brass Buttons." "(The) Door" hints at some of the metal that Dando and especially Brennan were listening to as youngsters, with some uncharacteristically heavy, but quite adroit, riffing. Only the closing "track," an answering-machine message from Polly Noonan, the "Gummi Bear girl" on the bus at the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, could be considered filler. Lovey is a solid major-label debut and an essential Lemonheads record.

Robert: After Peretz and Ryan laid down their parts on songs like "Half the Time" and "Stove" (which are my favorites on Lovey), Dando went back into the studio while they were studying for final exams and rerecorded the bass and drums. This, combined with other frustrations, led them to quit the Lemonheads before Lovey was released. Their tour replacements, Byron Hoagland and Ben Daughtry, can be seen in the video for "Half the Time," but they never recorded as Lemonheads. In a 1991 interview with Melody Maker's Everett True, Dando joked that he didn't jell with the new rhythm section because Hoagland "had a beard, which was unacceptable."

In early '91, before an international tour and a stop in Australia that inspired Dando's most prolific period of writing, Peretz and Ryan rejoined the band. Peretz left for good at the end of the tour to concentrate on film school, but he returned the following year to direct videos for the Lemonheads' next album, It's a Shame About Ray.

Lovey sold 11,000 copies, less than half of what the independently released Lick was able to move. It was time for the Lemonheads to justify their existence on Atlantic's roster.

It's a Shame About Ray (1992)

Robert: The group's mainstream breakthrough built momentum quietly during the summer of '92. Clocking in at under half an hour, Ray wastes no time delivering its 12 tracks of perfect pop. On the surface Dando and the band (Ryan on drums again, Juliana Hatfield on bass and fairy-dust backing vocals) provide warm sunshine throughout: giddy love songs like "Alison's Starting to Happen" ("She's the puzzle piece behind the couch / That made the sky complete") are a welcome addition to any summer mix tape. But the subject matter often veers into darker areas: "Confetti" was inspired by Dando's parents' divorce ("He'd rather be alone than pretend"), the title track hints at suicide, and "Rudderless" makes you wonder if Dando's having second thoughts about some of his unhealthy habits ("Waiting for something to break … / Tired of getting high / Guess I don't wanna die").

There isn't a weak track on Ray, and for the first time the Lemonheads had created an album that's more than the sum of its parts, due in no small measure to the Robb Bros., who coproduced it with Dando, and new Australian friend Tom Morgan, who cowrote "Bit Part" and the title track and helped spark Dando's renewed sense of songcraft. Critics and college-radio listeners knew they'd come across something special, but it took a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson," recorded to help promote a 25th-anniversary edition of The Graduate on home video, to introduce the Lemonheads—with new bassist Nic Dalton, the songwriter behind Ray's "Kitchen" and leader of the Australian band Godstar—to the general public. After Atlantic released "Mrs. Robinson" as a single (against the band's wishes) and it became a minor hit that fall, the label rereleased Ray with the new song tacked onto the end of the album. Atlantic also changed the title of "My Drug Buddy" to simply "Buddy." Here's hoping Rhino's upcoming 15th-anniversary reissue of Ray will toss "Mrs. Robinson" onto the bonus disc and restore "My Drug Buddy's" full title.

Ken: During this era Dando became friendly with fellow heartthrob (and accomplished actor) Johnny Depp, who appeared in the video for "It's a Shame About Ray" and managed to work the album's title into the film Benny & Joon (1993) with the line "It's a shame about raisins." Released a few months prior to Ray was Juliana Hatfield's Hey Babe, which included contributions from Dando. The summer of '92 found me painting houses with a friend; I had Ray and Hey Babe on opposite sides of a cassette that didn't leave the tape deck for weeks. Ray is the Lemonheads' most tuneful, cohesive, and—not surprisingly—best album.

After six years and five albums, the Lemonheads were finally becoming stars. Unfortunately, that had more to do with "the alternative movement" in rock in the early '90s and Dando's male-model good looks than his heartfelt songwriting or terrific vocals. Next week: the inevitable backlash, Dando's six-year vacation, his return as a solo performer, and the rebirth of the Lemonheads (or, at the very least, the Lemonheads' name).