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The Lemonheads

+ {Evan Dando}

From hardcore HUSKER DU-type thrashers to alt-country rockers, The LEMONHEADS (or just plain LEMONHEADS as they were known until mid 1993) were not everybody’s cup of tea when they kick-started their chequered pop career way back in March 1986.
Formed in Boston, Massachusetts in ’83 out of high-school combo The Whelps, drummer-cum-singer-songwriter/guitarist Evan Dando and the almost equally dextrous and astute Ben Deily, plus jazz-inspired bassist Jesse Peretz found it a tough market in which to break through. Raised by middle-class parents (an attorney and a fashion model, they were divorced when he was 12), Dando and Co released their debut EP, the amateurish indie squall of `Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners’ on their own, self-financed Amory Arms/Huh-Bag imprint; check it for `Fucked Up’ (the final track on their debut mini-set) and their take of Proud Scum’s `I Am A Rabbit’.
Happy to be picked up by Boston label, Taang!, LEMONHEADS (who’d added full-time drummer Doug Trachten) belting out spirited melodic punk, drawing comparisons with The SAINTS, STIFF LITTLE FINGERS, GENERATION X, The REPLACEMENTS, et al on quick-fire debut mini-LP, HATE YOUR FRIENDS (1987) {*4}. After a few listens to the record, a record that housed an ill-advised cover of `Amazing Grace’, there was little to get over-excited about, bar say `I Don’t Wanna’, `Fed Up’ and `Second Chance’.
The CREATOR (1988) {*5} album was little better; 13 mind-numbing power-pop tracks that lacked any bite or substance; `Out’, `Falling’ and a rendition of KISS’ `Plaster Caster’ being the exceptions to the rule. Only when Evan tempered the songs (the jangly but chilling Charles Manson ditty `Your Home Is Where You’re Happy’), did the group recoup their musical restrictions; John Strohm of BLAKE BABIES was the sticksman on this occasion, while Evan duly turned up as bassist and backing singer for said group (on both `Earwig’ and mini `Slow Learner’ sets), as it was led by his girlfriend JULIANA HATFIELD.
With a nod to the MEAT PUPPETS, the opening salvo (`Mallo Cup’) to third mini-album LICK (1989) {*6}, was pointing in the right direction, although in-fights and tensions between Dando and Deily were fraught; new boy Corey Loog Brennan was Strohm’s replacement. The pick of the bunch was a beguiling cover of SUZANNE VEGA’s `Luka’, but the need to regurgitate hardcore tunes, `Glad I Don’t Know’ and `I Am A Rabbit’, was somewhat misplaced for a group who should’ve been looking to the future. That aside, one could see merit in lighter tracks such as `A Circle Of One’ and the Mexicana, STOOGES-esque tune `Cazza De Ferro’; note too that `Luka’ was released as a single with a version of PATSY CLINE’s `Strange’ on the flip side.
Atlantic Records were sufficiently confident in the band’s pop-grunge abilities to offer them a deal, the initial fruits of which, the well-received LOVEY (1990) {*6}, saw Dando take more of a leading role following the departure of Deily; Brennan also left during recording. From this point on Evan steered the band in an increasingly mellow, country-flavoured direction going as far as treading out a fairly faithful rendition of his hero GRAM PARSONS’ `Brass Buttons’.
He’d already explored the genre on a pre-Atlantic UK-only EP, `Favourite Spanish Dishes’, with a brilliant reading of MICHAEL NESMITH’s `Different Drum’; two other covers (NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK’s `Step By Step’ and the MISFITS’ `Skulls’) featured on the US version released early the following year. David Ryan had now filled in for Deily, although he and Peretz had made way for drummer Ben Daughty (ex-SQUIRREL BAIT) and bassist Byron Hoagland on a promotional tour. “Lovey” at least had a few minor gems in `Ride With Me’ and `Stove’, while the new boys played on only one single, a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s `Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now’.
Yet the ever unpredictable Dando split the band up after the major label debut, eventually re-forming with the help of his aforementioned girlfriend Hatfield and the returning Ryan. A spell in Australia seemed to have further mellowed the singer and the resultant album, IT’S A SHAME ABOUT RAY (1992) {*8}, was the most accessible LEMONHEADS release to date, heavy on harmonies and melody. Despite a favourable critical reception, the album lingered in the lower reaches of the album chart and it was only when Atlantic issued the band’s power pop cover of SIMON & GARFUNKEL’s `Mrs. Robinson’, that LEMONHEADS became a household name. Re-released to include the said hit track, the album enjoyed a commercial comeback, eventually making it into the UK Top 40 (Top 75 back home). If only they’d added a few more songs such as UK hits, `Confetti’ and the jangly title track, to the rather short but customary half-hour set, who knows what might’ve happened; check it out for re-treads of `Frank Mills’ (from the “Hair” musical) and Nic Dalton’s `Kitchen’, a soon-to-be Lemonhead from Australia; co-writing contributions from fellow Aussie Tom Morgan (of SMUDGE) seemed to be creeping in more often.
Suddenly Dando’s long-haired, slacker-extraordinaire visage was staring out from every magazine cover from NME to The Face, although this sudden thrust into the limelight seemed to drive the man further into drug abuse; `My Drug Buddy’ from his last set had also hit the charts. HATFIELD took off for a semi-lucrative solo career prior to follow-up album, COME ON FEEL THE LEMONHEADS (1993) {*7}. Another mellow beauty, it powered into the UK Top 5 on the back of a successful Love Positions’ hit cover, `Into Your Arms’. It even featuring contributions from legendary pedal steel player, Sneaky Pete Kleinow and two other country-styled tracks in `It’s About Time’ and `Big Gay Heart’. Predictably, the Yanks just didn’t get it, preferring the bluster of PEARL JAM instead.
Lack of success in his home country sent Dando spiralling further into drug use, although he had apparently cleaned up by the end of the year, undertaking a solo acoustic tour of his homeland. However, after a much criticised appearance at the 1995 Glastonbury festival, Dando went to ground, spending much of his time in Australia strung out on heroin and LSD. A shorn, torn and frayed Dando and his all-new LEMONHEADS (including Murph from DINOSAUR JR.) eventually surfaced in October 1996 with CAR BUTTON CLOTH {*6}. Their first product in three years, Dando was in reflective and world-weary mood, the melancholy side of his songwriting more pronounced than ever. Whatever direction the album wanted to go, whether country-rock, stoner-rock or a grungy pop-rock, best moments came through minor UK hits, `It’s All True’ and `If I Could Talk I’d Tell You’ (penned with Eugene Kelly of The VASELINES), plus `C’mon Daddy’ (penned with Epic Soundtracks), Tom Morgan’s `Tenderfoot and the trad piece `Knoxville Girl’.
After a seemingly interminable wait, a solo EVAN DANDO came in from the wilderness with LIVE AT THE BRATTLE THEATRE / GRIFFITH SUNSET ep (2001) {*5}, a half live/half studio covers affair which revisited old favourites like `Down About It’ and `My Drug Buddy’. His selection of covers came through main country/folk singer-songwriters like VICTORIA WILLIAMS (`Frying Pan’), BIG STAR (`Thirteen’), FRED NEIL (`Ba-De-Da’), Lawton Williams (`Fraulein’), JOHN PRINE (`Sam Stone’), TOWNES VAN ZANDT (`Nothin’), The LOUVIN BROTHERS (`My Baby’s Gone’) and TIM HARDIN (`Tribute To Hank Williams’). If it was hardly a high profile comeback, one shouldn’t’ve been too surprised; thankfully DANDO still sounds as if he’s doing it all off the cuff with the kind of haphazard enthusiasm his druggy days might well have leached out of him. Incidentally, over the years The LEMONHEADS tried their hand at many songs including Billy Roberts’ `Hey Joe’, BIG STAR’s `Mod Lang’, Cole Porter’s `Miss Otis Regrets’, METALLICA’s `Fade To Black’, OASIS’ `Live Forever’, REO SPEEDWAGON’s `Keep On Loving You’, JIMMY WEBB’s `Galveston’ and The JACOBITES’ `Pin Yr Heart’.
It was a wiser, cleaned-up DANDO which eventually resurfaced in early 2003 with BABY I’M BORED {*7}, his debut studio album and his first collection of new material in years. Although the wiry angst of old was gone completely, the singer had unsurprisingly honed the poignant, bittersweet essence of his more reflective work, resulting in the least immediate but perhaps most rewarding album of his career thus far. While his voice betrayed the trials of recent years, it had lost none of its melancholy charm and, while his songs such as `Waking Up’, `It Looks Like You’ (one of a handful penned with Jon Brion) and `The Same Thing You Thought Hard About Is The Same Part I Can Live Without’ (ditto Ben Lee) remained as deceptively basic as ever, they were permeated with the wisdom of encroaching middle age.
Taking in a couple of DESCENDENTS refugees, Karl Alvarez (bass) and Bill Stevenson (drums); the latter even contributing a couple of songs (`Become The Enemy’, `Steve’s Boy’ and with Dando: `Let’s Just Laugh’), their eponymously-titled comeback set, THE LEMONHEADS (2006) {*6} was a welcome return to the fore after a decade away. The addition also of guitarist J MASCIS was worth parting with cash for this all-star parade. Pity then there were no classic records, just plain and simple goodies like `Black Gown’, `Rule Of Three’ and `December’.
The subsequent covers set VARSHONS (2009) {*6} was fashioned on Evan’s personal faves. Produced by Gibby Haynes (of The BUTTHOLE SURFERS), the record divides itself between genres such as country:- `I Just Can’t Take It Anymore’ (GRAM PARSONS), `Waiting Around To Die’ (TOWNES VAN ZANDT), folk:- `How Can We Hang On?’ (TIM HARDIN), `Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ (LEONARD COHEN) – partnering Liz Tyler, psychedelia:- `Dandelion Seeds’ (JULY), `Yesterlove’ (SAM GOPAL), `The Green Fuz’ (RANDY ALVEY & THE GREEN FUZ), punk:- `Fragile’ (WIRE), `Layin’ Up With Linda’ (GG ALLIN), `New Mexico’ (FuckEmos), electronica:- `Dirty Robot’ (ARLING & CAMERON) – featuring Kate Moss on vox – and pop:- `Beautiful (a hit for CHRISTINA AGUILERA).
If ever there was a case of “whatever happened to…”, then The LEMONHEADS were atop of the tree. A quarter of a century ago Evan Dando and Co were touted to become the next big thing in alt-rock; and then the “Car Button Cloth” crash that veered the band off the road to pop obscurity and, in turn, forever-and-a-day known only for their re-vamp of “Mrs. Robinson”. Whether it was indeed a shame about Evan, that paradox was for long-lost acolytes to ponder. Rumours rife concerning a fresh studio set were put to bed indefinitely by sequel covers set: the aptly-titled VARSHONS II (2019) {*6}. Dando was now into his early 50s, so lazing in his back porch rocking-chair donning a Stetson came to mind for second-hand “versions” of The JAYHAWKS’ `Settled Down Like Rain’, JOHN PRINE’s `Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness’, LUCINDA WILLIAMS’ `Abandoned’, NRBQ’s `Magnet’, FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE’s `Round Here’ and the EAGLES’ `Take It Easy’. Possibly Dando’s most challenging and ill-conceived was in his interpretation of The GiveGoods’ reggae track, `Unfamiliar’, though one could almost forgive the man for tracking down the vaults for EYES (`TAQN’), YO LA TENGO (`Can’t Forget’), The BEVIS FROND (`Old Man Blank’) and NICK CAVE’s `Straight To You’. Was it almost fashionable to decry the singing talent of The LEMONHEADS kingpin, only time would tell; though the clock was ticking.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Jun2019

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