Review of The Lemonheads
by Michael Lomas
From Pop Matters, October 2006
There’s a line on the fourth track of The Lemonheads long-time-coming and somewhat unexpected new record that goes, “Let’s just laugh/ We can never do anything about anything anyway.” Sure, it might not be the most poignant or devastating comment that has ever been made about the disastrous George W. Bush administration, but it sums up perfectly the wonky, slacker charm of Evan Dando. Even now, pushing 40, he’s still, endearingly, the same beautiful loser he always was. Emerging after one of the longest and most spectacular lost weekends in recent memory, it’s comforting and strangely thrilling to hear that this new version of The Lemonheads sound, well, pretty much the same as the old one actually. The last few years have seen Dando attempt to make up for some of the time he lost to silly drugs and hanging out with Courtney Love and Oasis. Following some increasingly coherent live shows, he began to ease back into public consciousness with a low-key and rather wonderful solo album Baby I’m Bored in 2003, a record that found him settling down into a laid-back country groove. Given that Lemonheads songs had always sounded a bit like old country and folk numbers that were being covered by a skewed punk band, it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to hear Dando, with all his weathered experience of excess, strumming these dazed confessionals.
Perhaps aware that leaving it any later and it might start look a bit silly, Dando seems to have decided that now is the right time to plug in the guitars, ramp up the volume and go back to playing the perfectly placed power-pop that almost made him a superstar over a decade ago. Obviously, trying to retrace your wasted youth is always risky business, but in truth, The Lemonheads were always gloriously out of step with the times back then anyway. At the height of grunge when the whole world was screaming, Dando was happy just looking cute and playing sunshine-sad pop songs—hopelessly nostalgic even in 1992. For The Lemonheads, he’s recruited crack Descendents rhythm section, Bill Stevenson and Karl Alvarez, enlisted a bit of help from grunge survivor J Mascis and The Band’s Garth Hudson, and rolled back the years to make a very good record indeed.
From the first time the album’s single “Become the Enemy” sounds from the speakers (one of a handful of songs written by Stevenson), it’s like The Lemonheads have never been away. It could well be the classic ‘Heads single as it bounces along, bound up with the sadness and faded dreams of the disintegrating couple in the song’s lyrics. Of course it’s all Dando’s fault that “things never turn out the way we plan”, and as ever, he sings the words with an underrated, resigned sigh. It’s as if all those wasted years have given Dando a sense of the broken down despair that has now come to the cast of slacker characters in his songs. Indeed, the quiet, underrated poetry of failure that curses through Dando’s sheer pop hooks has always been one of the most endearing aspects of his music. For this listener at least, nobody has ever painted quite such a shattering picture of the absurdity and hopelessness of dug addiction as Dando did on “Drug Buddy”. He revisits similar territory here on the stirring “Poughkeepsie”, singing, “Hit me in the arm/ Just please do it swiftly/ We aint got all day”, with a tender weight in his voice that is at odds with the rollicking tune.
As ever with Dando’s music, there’s precious little ambition or innovation to be heard on The Lemonheads, as neither the melodies nor the lyrics ever really go anywhere out the ordinary. But therein lies part of the charm of The Lemonheads. Indeed, given that Dando’s characters are more likely to react to marital disputes by driving around the suburbs for an hour before returning home to apologise, the dark country murder-ballad “Baby’s Home” (actually written by long time Lemonheads contributor Tom Morgan) comes as a delicious surprise. Dando describes the surprise his shotgun packs as he blows his cheating wife to bits with a resigned smirk that’s halfway between being funny and pretty damn terrifying.
Morgan’s other song, “No Backbone” is also a cracker, and despite the slightly unnecessary presence of J Mascis’ typically squalling lead guitar, the tune generally parties like it was 1992, and would surely find a home even on the mighty It’s a Shame About Ray. Elsewhere, both “Pittsburgh” and “In Passing” are classic sugar-coated Dando anthems, while the closing “December” loses its way in a few minutes of tape noise and feedback before being pulled around in a final burst of joyous pop songwriting.
It’s true that there’s nothing quite as sparkling as “Outdoor Type” or as immediately wonderful as a song like “Confetti” on The Lemonheads, but taken as a whole, the record is a remarkably filler-free collection of simple, brilliant songs. There’s enough in Dando’s affable charm, dazed vocals and gentle, sorrowful lyrics to make large parts of this record a joy to listen to. Had it arrived 1993when The Lemonheads were on the cusp of mainstream stardom instead of the half-baked, half-brilliant Come on Feel the Lemonheads, things might have taken a very different path indeed. As it is, set against the hurried cut-and-paste clutter of 2006, The Lemonheads is something of an exercise in beautiful, thrilling nostalgia. Nobody needs a new Lemonheads album right now, but this album still deserves to be heard. If nothing else it confirms that despite the last near-decade of madness and waste, Evan Dando remains one of the most enduringly bright talents to emerge from the nineties. It’s good to have him back.