Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Evan Dando and the Lemonheads, Part One

Below is the first part of the Lemonheads/Evan Dando album guide I cowrote with Ken Sumka back in July for Jefitoblog.

Evan Dando and Ben Deily, upper-middle-class teenagers from the Boston suburbs, formed the Lemonheads with classmate Jesse Peretz in 1986 during their senior year of high school. In the beginning Dando and Deily would switch off on drums for each other's songs, with Peretz on bass. They started out emulating the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Dinosaur Jr. and gradually added Gram Parsons and Hank Williams to their list of influences under the leadership of Dando, who took the reins in '89 and became the band's one constant member as other players drifted in and out.

You may only know the Lemonheads as camera-friendly dudes who had a hit covering "Mrs. Robinson" during the final months of George Bush Sr.'s presidency. Lucky for you—and them—there's much more to the story.

Hate Your Friends (1987)

Ken: While there are certainly plenty of debuts that knock the ball out of the park, most hint at what is yet to come. Hate Your Friends falls into the latter category: it displays a keen knack for concise punk-pop songs by both Dando and Deily, but it falls short of perfection. Deily wrote the arguably "punkier" stuff, including the gem "Second Chance," which hides a sweet, lovelorn/kiss-off lyric under a fuzzy guitar part and catchy chorus. Another great Deily cut, "Uhhh," treads similar ground—a crunchy riff over "relationship gone south" material. Dando's "Don't Tell Yourself" tries desperately to crawl out from a plodding drumbeat and almost succeeds, and "Nothing True" certainly winks at the Replacements but maintains Dando's own sensibilities. Also, the time-honored Lemonheads tradition of cheeky covers is born with a 90-second version of "Amazing Grace." Hate Your Friends contains some filler, but a good three-quarters of this debut hits the mark.

Robert: Taang!'s 1992 reissue added 7 tracks to the original album's 13, including songs from the band's 1986 EP, Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners, and outtakes that eventually appeared on their third album, Lick. But even with 20 songs, the album's over in about 35 minutes. (There's also Create Your Friends, a compilation that offers the Lemonheads' first two albums on one disc and whose title niftily predicts the MySpace era.) Dando's gift for incisive, memorable lyrics pops up for the first time on the title track ("You've got problems you can't solve / It's enough to make you start to hate your friends"), and Deily's nasally vocals are a good match for the band's snotty punk-lite songs.

Creator (1988)

Ken: Creator saw the welcome addition of John Strohm (Blake Babies, Antenna) on drums after Doug Trachten, who was behind the kit for half of Hate Your Friends, was let go. Deily contributes eight songs here (compared to three by Dando), including the spooky "Burial Ground" and tempo-shifting "Sunday." Dando's much-improved songwriting chops are on full display in "Die Right Now," with a twin-guitar intro that plunges headlong into a searing riff and solo that would make J Mascis proud. "Clang Bang Clang" introduces Dando's fascination with Charles Manson—the song "borrows" its title and a few lyrics from Charlie—and "Helter Skelter's" #1 fan pops up again via a cover of his song "Your Home Is Where You're Happy." Like the Replacements had done a few years earlier, Kiss gets covered, though the Lemonheads opt for 1977's "Plaster Caster."

Robert: Creator is the group's most disposable album, but Dando's rich baritone commands attention on the Manson cover; he's always been a gifted interpreter of other performers' songs, even those of serial killers. Deily works hard here, but his songwriting doesn't gain any traction. Following the album's release in the summer of '88, the Lemonheads disbanded after a performance in which Dando replaced his guitar solo in each song—even if one wasn't required—with the riff from Guns n' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine."

Lick (1989)

Ken: The core of Dando/Deily/ Peretz was still intact after what turned out to be only a temporary break-up, but John Strohm left once Creator was done to focus on Blake Babies, which featured Dando on bass during the Lemonheads' hiatus. With Strohm gone, Dando moved to drums, and Bullet LaVolta's Corey Loog Brennan was added on guitar. These days he's Dr. Brennan, Ph.D., Strohm's a lawyer in Alabama, Deily's in PR and advertising, and Peretz is a film director whose credits include The Chateau (2002) and The Ex (2007).

Lick gets under way with Dando's jangly "Mallo Cup," which at just two minutes and 11 seconds manages to distill everything great about the band: wistful lyrics ("Here I am outside your house at 3 AM / Trying to think you out of bed"), melodic verses, and a buzz-saw chorus. Deily contributes a few more of his great jilted-kid songs with "Anyway" and the terrific "Ever," which makes excellent use of his raspy voice. Things take an odd turn with the mostly-sung-in-Italian "Cazzo di Ferro," about Raymond Burr, of all people. The attention getter here—at least on college radio in '89—is a fairly straight reading of Suzanne Vega's earnest child-abuse hit "Luka" (recorded during the sessions for Creator). Nashville chestnut "Strange" (Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson) also gets a revved-up treatment. With favorable reviews and brisk sales, the tide was shifting, and major labels started beckoning.

Robert: When a summer tour of Europe was offered to them, the Lemonheads re-formed just a few months after breaking up. Taang! wanted them to record a new album before the tour, but Dando had writer's block and Deily was becoming more and more estranged from his bandmates, so Lick was filled out with the Hate Your Friends leftovers "Sad Girl" and "Ever," plus new versions of early songs like "Glad I Don't Know." (The 1992 reissue rescued "Mad," a Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners orphan, and "Strange" from the "Luka" seven-inch.) Despite its cut-and-paste nature, Lick somehow manages to hang together and rawk out in unexpected ways. During their tour, the band—minus Deily, who bowed out as soon as Lick was finished—made a stop in the Netherlands and played a few songs on VPRO, where Brennan posed as Dando for an interview with an unsuspecting Dutch DJ.

Favorite Spanish Dishes EP (1990)

Ken: Ah, the covers/odds-'n'-sods stopgap EP. What fun. Dando and co. kick it off with a sprightly cover of the Mike Nesmith-penned Stone Poneys/Linda Ronstadt cut "Different Drum," followed by a so-so Dando original ("Paint") and the acoustic "Ride With Me" (with a Manson sound clip thrown in for good measure). Homage/scorn is heaped upon fellow Bostonians NKOTB with a funny but accurate cover of the massive hit "Step by Step," and the record closes with the Misfits' "Skulls." There's nothing essential here, but it's still fun.

Robert: Originally released in Europe before Lovey, the Lemonheads' first album for Atlantic Records, the three-song EP was expanded to five tracks for American release in '91. Dando, a music geek from an early age, gives a brief tour of his record collection here, but his own "Paint" is also a winner, and many fans prefer the acoustic version of "Ride With Me" to Lovey's electric one.

Lovey (1990)

Ken: Signed to Atlantic by former A&R scout (and current Thrill Jockey Records owner) Bettina Richards, the band benefited greatly from a major-label budget. After a revolving cast of drummers that included Trachten, Strohm, Dando, Deily, and even a guy who performed under the name of Johnny Bravo, David Ryan was recruited for Lovey and was a quantum leap forward in the percussion department. Peretz stayed put on bass, and Brennan cowrote two songs and made contributions on guitar. With no-nonsense production from Paul Q. Kolderie, Ryan's solid drumming, and much-improved sound quality, Lovey finally presents the Lemonheads how they should sound.

The opener, "Ballarat," obliquely references Manson again (the Manson Family set up camp in Ballarat, California, for a while) but also asserts that this is a different band, one that rocks with a renewed vigor. "Half the Time" revisits the jangle of "Mallo Cup," and "Ride With Me" is the group's best ballad yet. "Li'l Seed" is a NORML rallying cry with some great guitar work from Brennan. "Stove" is the kind of song that became second nature to Dando, a simple story about an everyday happening—the replacement of a stove—but it's infused with small details that bring the song to life. "Left for Dead" is a slightly cleaner retread of "Clang Bang Clang" from Creator, and Dando shows his affection for Gram Parsons with a cover of "Brass Buttons." "(The) Door" hints at some of the metal that Dando and especially Brennan were listening to as youngsters, with some uncharacteristically heavy, but quite adroit, riffing. Only the closing "track," an answering-machine message from Polly Noonan, the "Gummi Bear girl" on the bus at the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, could be considered filler. Lovey is a solid major-label debut and an essential Lemonheads record.

Robert: After Peretz and Ryan laid down their parts on songs like "Half the Time" and "Stove" (which are my favorites on Lovey), Dando went back into the studio while they were studying for final exams and rerecorded the bass and drums. This, combined with other frustrations, led them to quit the Lemonheads before Lovey was released. Their tour replacements, Byron Hoagland and Ben Daughtry, can be seen in the video for "Half the Time," but they never recorded as Lemonheads. In a 1991 interview with Melody Maker's Everett True, Dando joked that he didn't jell with the new rhythm section because Hoagland "had a beard, which was unacceptable."

In early '91, before an international tour and a stop in Australia that inspired Dando's most prolific period of writing, Peretz and Ryan rejoined the band. Peretz left for good at the end of the tour to concentrate on film school, but he returned the following year to direct videos for the Lemonheads' next album, It's a Shame About Ray.

Lovey sold 11,000 copies, less than half of what the independently released Lick was able to move. It was time for the Lemonheads to justify their existence on Atlantic's roster.

It's a Shame About Ray (1992)

Robert: The group's mainstream breakthrough built momentum quietly during the summer of '92. Clocking in at under half an hour, Ray wastes no time delivering its 12 tracks of perfect pop. On the surface Dando and the band (Ryan on drums again, Juliana Hatfield on bass and fairy-dust backing vocals) provide warm sunshine throughout: giddy love songs like "Alison's Starting to Happen" ("She's the puzzle piece behind the couch / That made the sky complete") are a welcome addition to any summer mix tape. But the subject matter often veers into darker areas: "Confetti" was inspired by Dando's parents' divorce ("He'd rather be alone than pretend"), the title track hints at suicide, and "Rudderless" makes you wonder if Dando's having second thoughts about some of his unhealthy habits ("Waiting for something to break … / Tired of getting high / Guess I don't wanna die").

There isn't a weak track on Ray, and for the first time the Lemonheads had created an album that's more than the sum of its parts, due in no small measure to the Robb Bros., who coproduced it with Dando, and new Australian friend Tom Morgan, who cowrote "Bit Part" and the title track and helped spark Dando's renewed sense of songcraft. Critics and college-radio listeners knew they'd come across something special, but it took a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson," recorded to help promote a 25th-anniversary edition of The Graduate on home video, to introduce the Lemonheads—with new bassist Nic Dalton, the songwriter behind Ray's "Kitchen" and leader of the Australian band Godstar—to the general public. After Atlantic released "Mrs. Robinson" as a single (against the band's wishes) and it became a minor hit that fall, the label rereleased Ray with the new song tacked onto the end of the album. Atlantic also changed the title of "My Drug Buddy" to simply "Buddy." Here's hoping Rhino's upcoming 15th-anniversary reissue of Ray will toss "Mrs. Robinson" onto the bonus disc and restore "My Drug Buddy's" full title.

Ken: During this era Dando became friendly with fellow heartthrob (and accomplished actor) Johnny Depp, who appeared in the video for "It's a Shame About Ray" and managed to work the album's title into the film Benny & Joon (1993) with the line "It's a shame about raisins." Released a few months prior to Ray was Juliana Hatfield's Hey Babe, which included contributions from Dando. The summer of '92 found me painting houses with a friend; I had Ray and Hey Babe on opposite sides of a cassette that didn't leave the tape deck for weeks. Ray is the Lemonheads' most tuneful, cohesive, and—not surprisingly—best album.

After six years and five albums, the Lemonheads were finally becoming stars. Unfortunately, that had more to do with "the alternative movement" in rock in the early '90s and Dando's male-model good looks than his heartfelt songwriting or terrific vocals. Next week: the inevitable backlash, Dando's six-year vacation, his return as a solo performer, and the rebirth of the Lemonheads (or, at the very least, the Lemonheads' name).


  1. Not a big fan of long posts, are you?

  2. hey you guys - this is a really good essay - I just came across it and ( unlike most copy about my band ) all the information is correct and I agree with your take on our strengths and weaknesses thanks for doing this . Evan Dando

  3. It was our pleasure, Evan. I'll be seeing you here in Chicago in a few weeks.


  4. Thanks for the compliment, Evan!

  5. Ahhh...bubblegrunge

    1. Creating memorable pop melodies during the heyday of grunge wasn't always appreciated, as evidenced by that term.