Review of It's A Shame About Ray - Collector's Edition
by Stephen M. Deusner
From Pitchfork Media - 28th March 2008
I couldn't have given a shit about the Lemonheads in 1992, when I was a freshman in college and all the upperclass women were swooning over Evan Dando. For me, his pin-up status de-authenticated his music, which seemed mopey and unsubstantial. He sounded detached, like a stoner at a funeral, and the songs on the Lemonheads' break-out album, It's a Shame About Ray, were so short (several under two minutes) and the hooks so nonchalant they sounded accidental, all of which suggested a paucity of ideas and a short attention span reinforced by song titles like "Rudderless" and "My Drug Buddy".
So, when Rhino's new reissue arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, I put it in my early 90s boombox out of pure nostalgia, mildly curious to hear how or if it had aged. Since then, I've kept playing it for very different reasons, which are more difficult to pinpoint and hopefully say as much about the music as they do about me. Almost 16 years after its initial release, Dando's slacker pop sounds almost Zen. Those short songs now seem concise and even disciplined. What was once mopey now plays as something much more complex and contradictory: exuberant pop melancholy.
Some background: The Lemonheads formed in Boston during the mid-1980s and released three albums of fuzzy punk-pop on local label Taang! Records before signing to Atlantic in 1989. Their 1990 major-label debut, Lovey, wasn't a huge return on the investment, but in the two-year interval between that album and Ray, Nirvana and the ensuing alternative boom proved that smaller bands and unlikely signings could have enormous commercial prospects. The Lemonheads both benefited and suffered from this new pop cultural climate: Just as Ray found a more open-minded audience, it was also disregarded by so many kids like me, who were suddenly very serious about music, man, and saw only Dando's model looks, not his songcraft. Never mind that Ray is as much a junkie album as Nevermind, written and partly recorded during a particularly narcotic-heavy trip to Australia. No wonder Dando was a pin-up: He was handsome but damaged, a fixer-upper. If he was the Jordan Catalano before Jared Leto, then the do-they-or-don't-they controversy between him and roommate/bassist/Spin cover kissing partner/self-professed virgin Juliana Hatfield made them the Ross and Rachel of the "120 Minutes" set.
Now that all of that hubbub has died down and Dando is just another alt-act trying to make a comeback, Ray sounds nearly revelatory in its restlessness, mixing college pop with country flair and relocating Gus Van Sant's Portland atmosphere to New England. The most beguiling aspect of the title track, one of Dando's best compositions, is its impenetrability: It could be about anyone or pertain to almost any bad situation, and that ambiguity suggests some tragedy that can't be named or faced. "The Turnpike Down" descends on a tripping hook that sounds altogether too bubbly for the material, while "Alison's Starting to Happen", inspired by a friend's ecstasy trip, sounds genuinely excited, especially when Dando starts rushing his words towards the end. "Kitchen", with its handclaps and effervescent jangle, rubs elbows with the tense chords and casually manic repetitions of "Rudderless", where the acoustic guitar sounds spikier than the electric. And the bow on the package is the not-necessarily-ironic cover of "Frank Mills", a song from the musical Hair that Dando sings with a charmingly goofy bliss.
This is, of course, a reissue of a reissue: Less than a year after its initial release, Ray was re-released with that cover of "Mrs. Robinson" as a bonus track. It was more of a marketing than a musical decision, some suit's confounding idea to commemorate the 25th anniversary of The Graduate. So, take a red fine-point Sharpie and write "(bonus track)" next to that song title, and pretend it's a curious rarity rather than the lame album closer it became. The song is more endearing as a lead-in to Rhino's unearthed bonus tracks, which sound like they've still got dust on them. Aside from the B-side "Shaky Ground", which doesn't need the full-band treatment to convey its slept-on melody, there are nine rough demo versions featuring mainly Dando accompanying himself on guitar. That's three-quarters of the album, which isn't bad.
There's also a DVD of videos and live performances from the Lemonheads' Australian tour, showcasing the circle of friends who inspired the album as well as a dated title-track clip starring Johnny Depp. But the real attraction here is that set of demos: Dando's songs stand up exceptionally well stripped to their barest essentials, especially "My Drug Buddy" and "Bit Part", which loses Peggy Noonan's shouted intro but features tender backing vocals from Hatfield. Ultimately, these demos prove how much craft and care went into the album's unique blend of levity and gravity, which sounds so unaffected it could easily be missed.