Major-label success found a select number of underground rockers in the early ’90s, and Boston’s Lemonheads certainly benefited from the glasnost that revealed irreverent youth pop to be as commercially viable in the new world as anything the grown-up song factories could generate. But Evan Dando’s real achievement was to demonstrate that a scenester as determinedly unmainstream as he, could, via the cute-boy network of Sassy magazine and MTV, be made into a genuine pinup idol — Peter Tork for Generation Slack. To be sure, stranger things have happened — witness the world of Morrissey — but as a Walter Mitty-esque success story, Dando’s ascension from indie-rock’s trenches rates a notation in the inspirational record book.
The Lemonheads’ brief introductory 7-inch contains four raw and restless poppy punk songs, three of which eventually turned up on later albums. With tuneless hardcore tantrums, noisy guitar raunch and pristine power pop, Hate Your Friends is a jarring and frustrating debut LP whose jewels (“Second Chance,” “Don’t Tell Yourself It’s OK,” “Uhhh” and the remarkable Saints soundalike “Fed Up”) luckily manage to outweigh the dross.
As the young quartet continued to do its growing up in public, Creator has more ambitious arrangements, and the influence of such bands as Mission of Burma and the dB’s can be sensed in songs like “Clang Bang Clang” (later redone, on Lovey, as “Left for Dead”) and “Take Her Down.” Unfortunately, a couple of pretty numbers are marred by wretched Hallmark-card sentiments. One neat surprise: a fairly reverent cover of Kiss’ old “Plaster Caster.” (Both albums were later combined on the Create Your Friends CD.)
In 1989, the same year Dando served as the Blake Babies’ bassist, the Lemonheads gained some notoriety with a bracing, off-the-cuff version of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka.” That track (and, on the CD, an effective electrified stab at Patsy Cline’s “Strange”) highlight the split-screen stylings of Lick, which counters almost every clever move (like the appropriation of the All in the Family theme on “7 Powers”) with a misguided dead end (like the trite “Anyway”).
Original bassist Jesse Peretz was on his way to success as a video director; Ben Deily also left, replaced by drummer David Ryan. That left the Lemonheads nothing more than a name and a touring vehicle for Dando, always the group’s creative force and chief songwriter. While the move to a major label did nothing to undercut the Lemonheads, Dando’s sensitive side is very much in evidence on Lovey. The R.E.M.-ish “Half the Time,” BÖC-ish “(The) Door” and Gram Parsons’ “Brass Buttons” reveal a punk kid almost all grown up, with no qualms about expressing his perhaps unfashionable faves/influences. Dando’s lyrical preoccupations may seem a little strange at times: he quotes (and discusses) Charlie Manson on “Ballarat,” offers an ode to pot on the wah-wah workout “Li’l Seed” and embraces true mundanity in “Stove,” a song about getting rid of one. Dando reportedly performed much of Lovey himself. If so, that’s quite an achievement, as it’s a fine, varied collection.
It was another cover, this time of Mike Nesmith’s Linda Ronstadt-sung “Different Drum,” that brought the Lemonheads their next British chart success, served up in 1990 as Favorite Spanish Dishes, along with an acoustic rendition of Lovey‘s “Ride With Me” and Dando’s non-LP “Paint.” America’s Favorite Spanish Dishes adds covers of the Misfits’ “Skulls” and New Kids on the Block’s “Step by Step.”
Cutely titled for the band that originally did its cover song, the British Patience and Prudence EP offers “Half the Time” and “Stove” (enough with the thumb-sucking winsomeness already) from Lovey, plus a non-LP original and P & P’s 1956 hit, “Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now.”
The credits list Juliana Hatfield (bass, backing vocals), David Ryan (drums) and Dando (guitars, vocals), and that’s pretty much what you get for your money on It’s a Shame About Ray. The simple, unambitious and nearly unvarying (except for the pedal steel on “Hannah & Gabi”) album of low-key folk-rock pop — the Ramones channeled by Simon and Garfunkel — is distinctive only for the colorless enervation of Dando’s singing. The dishwater tedium is broken only by a couple of neat melodies and one unnerving lyric. The breezy “Alison’s Starting to Happen,” “Bit Part” (“…in your life”) and the woolly “Ceiling Fan in My Spoon” contain all the brash energy the album can muster and are actually good enough, while the downcast title track taps out the emotionalism in Dando’s reserve. Otherwise, the humalongs are strictly no-stick nothings. What’s memorable is “My Drug Buddy,” a musically nondescript duet with Hatfield that offers a first-person account of scoring. In the just-say-no era, Dando’s casual enthusiasm is shocking, but his inability to express anything clearly or firmly makes the song just another hazy shade of enigma. (The 2008 reissue, part of the Collector’s Edition series, adds an album’s worth of demos and other bonus material as well as a DVD called Two Weeks in Australia.
The inescapability of the Lemonheads’ cover connection was reinforced when a version of “Mrs. Robinson” recorded for The Graduate‘s 25th anniversary video relaunch got a solid MTV push and was subsequently added to a re-release of the album, for which the powers that be took the opportunity to primly trim the title of “My Drug Buddy” back to just “Buddy.” Nonetheless, both of those attention-getters were combined on the five-song My Drug Buddy EP, which also contains two songs from the next album and the otherwise non-LP “Shaky Ground.”
Compared to It’s a Shame About Ray‘s concise, low-key consistency, the sprawling Come on Feel the Lemonheads (the title is presumably a ’70s rock-fan wink at Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize”) virtually brims with stylistic initiative and Dando’s revelatory lyrics about the hollow feelings attending adulation. Not that he has much to say about it, but the fact of his response gives the record a personal reality previous albums managed to avoid. At its fringes, the album offers fifteen bizarre minutes of sonic indulgence (“The Jello Fund”) and a jarring juxtaposition of the cheese-eating country cutesiness of “Being Around” (“If I was a booger would you blow your nose?”) with the faux funk of “Rick James Style” (the album’s second version of “Style,” an unsettling but insightful drug equivocation, this one with guest vocals by the titular star). In the center, Dando manages to vary the ratio of strong rock, acoustic singer/songwriter pop and semi-electric country without incident. Hatfield sings lots of backup without picking up a bass (Australian Nic Dalton, of Godstar, joins Ryan in the rhythm section); Belinda Carlisle guest vocalizes on the peppy and defiant “I’ll Do It Anyway.” Like the album’s changes in attitude, the material is uneven and unpredictable, with too many wan melodies and drifting nothings that might have been developed into something if serious effort were on the agenda. Even the countryfied “Big Gay Heart” fails in its attempt to be provocative. “It’s About Time” (Hatfield’s showcase) has the album’s loveliest melody and lots of clangy guitar noise to go along with the rueful lyrics; “Into Your Arms” is a tenderly romantic mixtape classic. Somewhere between a discombobulated mess and an unevenly good showing by an artist in turmoil, Come on Feel the Lemonheads essentially cleared Dando’s decks, leaving the Lemonheads’ future completely up in the air, where it remained until the release of car button cloth three years later.
Putting a cap on the band’s career — or so it seemed at the time — car button cloth is decidedly sub-par. Spacehog collaborator Bryce Goggin, who evidently felt it his duty to remedy the bare-bones simplicity of what Dando does, over-produced the weak material (despite collaborative assistance from Tom Morgan, Epic Soundtracks and Eugene Kelly of Eugenius), making mild attempts to flesh the songs out that only make them worse. “The Outdoor Type,” a jokey bit of self-deprecation which Morgan wrote on his own, is a rare highlight here; “Lose Yourself,” “Something’s Missing” and “C’mon Daddy” (co-written with Epic Soundtracks about the confused paternity of Liv Tyler, who Dando had met on the set of Empire Records) all touch on a vein of truth that inspires Dando to be a better Lemonhead, but they’re not enough to make the album hold water. That the closing instrumental “Secular Rockulidge” sounds suspiciously like thrown-together filler doesn’t help.
Whatever became of Dando over the next decade (besides turning up dishevelled and disoriented at shows and getting up to do a number or two with various friends), he managed two solo albums (one of them live) and then reclaimed the band name and got in drummer/producer Bill Stevenson (and Karl Alvarez, his rhythm section partner in the Descendents and All) to help him make The Lemonheads, a likable, cogent album of adult punk-pop that matches Dando’s easygoing voice to genial fuzz-rock. “Steve’s Boy,” although written by Stevenson about his father, resembles the unrelated monologue on car button cloth. “Become the Enemy” collapses a marriage with catchy charm, and “No Backbone” adds another hooky melody to the discord theme. J Mascis plays on two tracks, and organist Garth Hudson is on another. Very nice.