Review of The Lemonheads
by Nitsuh Abebe
From Pitchfork Media, September 2006
Evan Dando makes more sense as a story than as a singer. Start in the late 1980s, when Massachusetts was still the mightiest indie rock state in the union and Dando was just one member of bread-and-butter Boston punk act the Lemonheads - and then fast-forward to the turn of the 90s, when he took control of the band and began to reshape it in his own image. Dando was a folkie and a country fan, and he'd fallen in love with the genial jangle of Australian indie; his punk roots receded and pop became the central focus. Result: 1992's It's a Shame About Ray, an album that sounds surprisingly good to this day; there's an easy-going slacker charm to it, a puppyish campfire feel that backs up every hook. (Plus: Juliana Hatfield on backing vocals.)
Bonus result: The band scores minor hits with the title track and a cover of "Mrs. Robinson" - and since the 90s alternative-rock gold rush is picking up steam, some folks at Atlantic Records start thinking. This Dando guy sure has an awfully square jaw, doesn't he? Long-haired, sensitive, deep voice, teenage girls think he's dreamy. Suddenly it's decided all around that Dando's going to be a massive alt-rock heartthrob who makes top-selling records, and the sooner the better. Unfortunately, Dando's smoking too much crack (literally - dude smoked crack) to either object or deliver an album that actually backs those plans up. Result: Used CD bins full of 1993's Come On Feel the Lemonheads, a mix of half-decent songs and dippy cast-offs. (It's actually one of the better songs that includes these memorable lines: "If I was a booger, would you pick your nose?/ Where would you keep it? Would you eat it?")
After that, Dando enters rehab, releases one more record (1996's Car Button Cloth), and then seems to spend the rest of the 90s wandering around with an acoustic guitar, playing his lovely old songs like some kind of high-profile busker. And the folks at Atlantic Records, not having learned their lesson, decide maybe they can turn Juliana Hatfield into a heartthrob instead.
It's not as if Dando hasn't released records since then, but this one is a major step - it's his first using the Lemonheads name in a decade. He's also rounded up a couple of former Descendents for his band (plus J Mascis for some guitar cameos, check), and he's promising a return to the old loud punk. And while this is most certainly not the old loud punk- not for a second - there's a half-kernal of truth in there somewhere: After all that time as the acoustic guitar-toting hippie, Dando's clearly having a blast playing rock again, solos and breakdowns and all. And weirdly, The Lemonheads even sounds like an actual reunion, like a bunch of guys getting the old band back together in the garage. There's not the barest whiff off Dando accommodating new trends, or shocking us with what he's learned - the band just jams loose and happy - It's a Shame About Ray with more guitar and fewer worthwhile songs.
Of course, the songs on this record aren't always much to write home about - they may be more sophisticated than most in the band's past, but they also feel a lot plainer. (Also, country number "Baby's Home" is actively horrible.) This leaves just Dando's charm and enthusiasm to carry the weight, which, after a few listens, it starts to manage. On the tracks that really work - "Rule of Three", "Poughkeepsie", or the part of "December" that just rewrites Ray's "Confetti" - the band sounds wonderfully breezy. It's windows-down driving-in-summer stuff, and a nice nostalgic contrast to a lot of the more pinched and nervy sounds of today. (It's not a matter of time, either: Dando's songs felt nostalgic in 1992, too.)
So far as the Dando story goes, it's a treat to see him recapture the vibe he very nearly got famous on - all the old tricks, just with more riffs and bigger amps. Plus, he's still genial and dippy: Everyone else writes angry songs about the Bush administration; his feel-good take on it is called "Let's Just Laugh", because, umm, "We can never do anything about anything anyway." He writes the same candied uptempo hooks, and he still takes his voice up into a higher register when he wants to create the illusion of the last verse of a song being more exciting.
Most listeners with a soft spot for those early-90s Lemonheads records will get a good spin out of The Lemonheads; it's always good to see old friends and have them come off this happy and unchanged, even if you don't really need them in your life anymore. The bigger question is whether anyone else will be sold on it. The 90s throwback vibe says no - who's itching for strummy power-pop these days, and why not just pick up Ray instead? - but Dando's damned unprepossessing charm just might drag a few fun-lovers across the line.