Review of The Lemonheads
by Matt Driscoll
From The Portland Mercury, 23rd November 2006
Call me a cynic, but two things came to mind when I heard Evan Dando was back fronting a band called the Lemonheads, and had a new record out—the first new Lemonheads album in 10 years.
Number one: Weird. I thought after being featured in People's "50 Most Beautiful People," reaching alterna-hunk status, and shooting enough dope to kill a herd of wildebeest in the '90s, Dando had retired to a syringe-filled apartment, paid for by the royalties of past success, to smoke rock and lament about the glory days.
Number two: If Dando does still exist (it's true he's released well-received solo work in the last few years), and he's in front of a band called the Lemonheads, with a new record called The Lemonheads, he's obviously trying to capitalize on '90s nostalgia, and sell enough records to pay for a pound of China white before people realize they forked over cash for an album that never should have been made in the first place.
Like I said, call me a cynic.
Then The Lemonheads (Vagrant), released in September, arrived in the mail. The band's lineup has always fluctuated, with Dando the lone constant, and for this record drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Karl Alvarez, both of Descendents fame, round out the group. Shocking as it seems, Lemonheads isn't garbage. At least I was surprised. Maybe you've always had faith in Dando.
There's reason for faith. While many people remember the insipid cover of "Mrs. Robinson," appearances on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, the epic drug use, the fanzine Die, Evan Dando, Die, and the laughable meltdown, It's a Shame About Ray remains an early '90s alt-rock essential. Prior to the band's stint with Atlantic, the Lemonheads released three legit records on Taang!, and a hard-to-find objet d'art, indie EP Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners, in '86. Dando—a lawyer's son from Essex, Massachusetts—launched the first incarnation of the Lemonheads while a senior at an itsy-bitsy, private high school in Boston. His influences: the local hardcore/punk scene, bands like the Buzzcocks and Black Flag, and, apparently, the idea of being a "rock star."
He was good at playing the "rock star." He has the scars and bad press to prove it.
What makes Lemonheads better than expected is that, with his 40th birthday looming, Dando has lost the drugged-out, pretty-boy, hair-in-face façade, and reverted to what made the Lemonheads interesting in the first place: ear-tickling pop chops infused with a sense of melancholy that makes the whole thing matter. Dando is something like a post-slacker Tom Petty on The Lemonheads—the opener "Black Gown," and the Americana-laced "Baby's Home" leading the way. Stevenson and Alvarez, with their punk credentials, seem at home. It's a predictable record, but most pop is. Good pop almost always is.
Whether Dando is simply cashing in on the marketability of a band name he forsook a decade ago is debatable. If he is, considering the mud he's dragged the name through, Dando deserves his money. Making us forget he's a punchline would be a monumental accomplishment. The Lemonheads doesn't clear the slate, but it makes you rethink things a bit.