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.


  1. Is jefito permanently dead? I mean, can't Jeff do like the rest of us and set up a blogger account? I miss his blog.

  2. Jeff will be back, AMD. Sooner rather than later, I hope. But I do know he'll be back. Have you looked at jefitoblog.com recently? There IS something there ...

  3. Great write up. I too found Dando and the Lemonheads with Car Button Cloth in college, and as you said, I regretted having written them off as a lame pop band. Dando's voice is one the warmest and most engaging (when he is on his game) and his some of his songs are total classics.
    I just saw him in concert in Philly, after having seen him play two time before in Pittsburgh, once in support of his solo effort, with a backing band for half of the show, and another time at a small caberet type club with him playing solo and mainly acoustic.
    That first show, playing a great mix of the "Baby I'm Bored" songs (which sound best live) and old Lemonheads hits, was great. He was a little surly at times, but that was only because he was so earnest in performing, and he wanted the crowd to hear the best of what he could offer.
    The caberet show was not nearly as good. He sounded great, and played some songs like "Stove" that never sounded better. And he demoed songs such as "Pittsburgh"(the locals loved it). But he seemed miserable, and I don't think he liked being up there alone the whole time, and didn't love the fact that some people were at tables eating dinner(Avoid Club Cafe in Pittsburgh for shows for this reason).

    This lastest incarnation showed a haggard, high as a kite Eva. I honestly thought he might pass out at some points, as his eyes often rolled up into the back of his head and his once firm jaw layed slack. His guitar playing was spot on, but damn he was mumbleing and fumbeling with the words. He seemed to be having a good time though, but it was a short set compared other shows. Instead of his usual solo part of the show that lasts at least 3 songs, he literally ran away off the stage after one.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. I've seen Dando in concert three times -- twice with Chris Brokaw at his side playing rhythm guitar, first in November 2001 in Athens, Ga., and then in January '04 in Chicago, and once with a full band, including Juliana Hatfield on bass, in June '03 at a Chicago street festival. He was in a good mood at all of the shows, which was a relief, since I've heard many stories, and heard some of the bootlegs, of shows where he wasn't happy to be there. At both of the shows with Brokaw, Dando never used an acoustic guitar, from what I can remember, and I'm glad, because the louder the guitar, the less I can hear of the people who are talking throughout the show until Dando plays "Into Your Arms."