Review of The Lemonheads
by John Mulvey
From Uncut October 2006
Punk's Not Dead! The Marvellous Return of Evan Dando
Sometimes, it's easy to forget that Evan Dando actually made any records in the '90s. Thanks to his extra-curricular antics, he became stereotyped as grunge's hapless jester; a puppyish junkie who stumbled round London in Kurt Cobain's old coat, stalked Oasis, and talked about his drug habits with an eagerness that foreshadowed Pete Doherty. Symmetrically, he briefly dated Kate Moss, too. Dippy Dando, his critics called him, a tragicomic pop lightweight adrift in po-faced times for American rock.
The truth is that Dando was always a whole lot smarter - if no less reckless - than his image suggested. And the records he made with his ever-changing Lemoneads have endured much better than most. From 1987 to 1996, they hammered together hardcore, power-pop, country and the quixotic sound of the US underground into seven exhilarating LPs, peaking with 1992's It's A Shame About Ray. Dando, an uncommonly warm baritone, didn't write all the songs. But he invested everything he sang with his own happy-sad charisma.
Ten years on, the good news is that nothing much has changed. After a lovely solo album (2003's Baby I'm Bored), which privileged Dando's mellower inclinations, The Lemonheads is pithy and exuberant. His voice and way around a melody remain gorgeous: "Rule Of Three", for instance, is an infectious gallop that seems to cave in on itself, just as "The Great Big No" did in 1993. Tom Morgan, the leader of Australia's undervalued Smudge and provider of many key Lemonheads songs, contributes two more beauties.
Dando's new collaborators, meanwhile, act as a guide to his diverse inspirations. The Band's Garth Hudson brings rootsy heritage, with a solemn piano intro to the hurtling "Black Gown". J Mascis, an old running mate from Boston, nails a trademark wandering solo (much like "The Wagon") to Tom Morgan's outstanding "No Backbone". And, most importantly, the new rhythm section is Bill Stevenson and Karl Alvarez of '80s hardcore tykes The Descendents, a big influence on the adolescent Dando. With Stevenson also co-producing and writing, The Lemonheads has a thrust to its songcraft that recalls 1990's transitional Lovey.
Consequently, there's great pleasure to be found in Dando's refusal to play the embittered grunge survivor. As he approaches 40, his new home at Vagrant - a heavy-hitting label for new American punk - seems apposite. The Lemonheads is a moody, giddy, charming album, as ragged and dynamic as those the band were making half a lifetime ago. It's a small miracle that Evan Dando is still alive. It's a slightly bigger one that he can still fend off maturity wth such ruffled, wide-eyed panache.
UNCUT: There seems to be a lot of goodwill directed towards you and the band. Why do you think that is?
EVAN DANDO: I don't know! I think we got enough negative stuff in the past to be exempt now. The band's been going for 20 years - after such an investment of time, why change the name? And Iggy likes the name. No higher praise.
UNCUT: You seem more reconciled to being happy. Did you spend a long time trying to appear "dark" as a reaction to being viewed as a pop lightweight?
EVAN DANDO: I am definitely happy these days. The "dark" thing was a lot simpler than that - a lot of the time I just wasn't happy. Sometimes I forget that the point of the whole thing is to have fun. Otherwise you end up hurting the people around you... or you hurt yourself. That's what I used to do most often. One time a microwave bit me. My drummer turned the beat around and it didn't sound good. I didn't want to get mad at him, so I got mad at the appliances. I was trashing everything in the room, and this microwave grabbed me; ripped the tip off my index finger.
UNCUT: Looking back over the past 20 years, any regrets?
EVAN DANDO: Not one thing. Especially not the horrible stuff. You gotta lose it, at least once. I went to rehab, to please my parents. And when I got out, I smoked a joint, and I'm still here. I've learned to balance my drug-taking. Don't give drugs a bad name by doing too much. All things in moderation, including moderation...