Review of It's A Shame About Ray (2008 Reissue)
by Sylvie Simmons
From Mojo April 2008
Here comes the sun
A welcome return for the Boston band's 1992 breakthrough album. Collectors' Edition form has demos and DVD.
The Lemonheads' fifth album and second for Atlantic Records - who'd signed them as a stoner pop-grunge band on the strength of 1989 indie album Lick - was their most melodic and accessible to date. A perfect pop album, its 12 songs had the vibrancy of US powerpop, the mellowness of country rock, the loud guitars of grung, the impatience of punk (only one track on the original album is more than three minutes long; the entire album came in at under 30 minutes) and the lyrical concision and perfectly-observed detail of a Ray Davies or early Elvis Costello. And the whole thing was washed in a sweet, dopey, lazy sunniness that gave warmth to everything it touched, and belied the precision and focus of the songwriting. As Dando, face-down in the grass, says, quoting the Count Five on the DVD footage: "I've found I have a talent for lying down in the sun."
Much of the album was writtn in sunny Australia, where the band toured and Dando went back for a holiday, writing alone and with friends about the characters he was hanging with (It's A Shame About Ray; Alison's Starting To Happen; My Drug Buddy, or 'Buddy' as Atlantic preferred they called it). And it was recorded in sunny California in the old MGM studio where Elvis and Judy Garland once worked, with producers The Robb Brothers telling stories from the mad hippy days - the reasons, perhaps, for the two-minute cover of Frank Mills, from love-rock musical Hair. Stars dropped by the studio, including Johnny Depp, who wound up in their videos.
Track 13, a ragged rock cover of Simon And Garfunkel's Mrs Robinson, done for a video release of The Graduate after the album was finished, wasn't on the original pressing, but is included here. So are 14 more songs, all bar one (Shaky Ground) Dando's home demos of the album's songs. Most are performed solo, with acoustic guitar; a couple, like the sublime, dreamy My Drug Buddy, feature Juliana Hatfield on backing vocals. A few sound like demos, but more sound like spare, singer-songwriter Americana, vulnerable, wistful and dreamy.
Also included is DVD of their 1993 VHS Two Weeks In Australia - 45 minutes of videos, live footage, in-stores, and Dando sitting by the sea looking like a sun-kissed Dennis Wilson, talking to the camera about songs and bandmates. At a time when reissues are often littel more than legal mugging, this, for a Lemonheads fan, is about as good as it gets.
"He threw down a gun"
Evan Dando, holidaying in Costa Rica, talks to Sylvie Simmons.
A half-hour album?
That was the classic vinyl album length, 31 minutes, like Rubber Soul. There's always a temptation with CDs to use all that space, but we never did. One of my favourite records of all time was Group Sex by the Circle Jerks - only 15 minutes 20 seconds.
Was Los Angeles one big party?
It was. We were assigned these producers, the Robb Brothers, who had toured with The Byrds and were really good friends of Del Shannon - a lot of that record and the next I used both my guitar and Del Shannon's old favourite acoustic. Cherokee Studios started out next to the Spahn Ranch, where the Manson family lived, and they had all kinds of stories about that, which I was really into. Rick James came by and Harry Nilsson. Skunk Baxter, who was in The Doobie Brothers, played on Hannah & Gabi - he got his pedal steel out and threw a gun down on the desk and made a couple of passes at it, I guess to persuade people from commenting on what he was doing. And then the  LA riots happened. It was a fun time.
And Johnny Depp?
He was a Lemonheads fan. He had some songs on tapes and came in. I ended up living at his house for a couple of months.
Do you, like the critics, see this album as as stepping stone?
It was a moment, you know, where we were doing a certain thing bak in '86, and I guess Nirvana came along and did what we were trying to do a lot better than we did - and we were doing something else by that time anyway. A couple of years before, my friend had introduced me to Gram Parsons, and it just seemed like we were headed towards doing like a Ramones-type thing but brighter and with acoustic guitars involved - simple and with brevity but with a lot of warmth. It wasn't necessarily the fashionable thing to do at the time, but it worked. Or something.