The Lemonheads – It’s a Shame about Ray (1992)

    This album restores the two minute pop song to its rightful place. Each track is a perfect act of distillation-thumbnail sketches of a time and a...

 

 

This album restores the two minute pop song to its rightful place. Each track is a perfect act of distillation-thumbnail sketches of a time and a place, a comical incident, an intriguing character. Evan Dando’s voice is both honeyed and cracked, giving emotional depth to each track, and his ear for a melody was never more apparent than on this diminutive masterpiece.

lemonheads

They just want a bit part in your life!

 

The Lemonheads had always been on my radar and the previous two albums , Lick and Lovely, though patchy, contained excellent tracks, primarily the covers of Suzanne Vega’s Luka and Gram Parson’s Brass Buttons. For their major label debut, Dando slowed things down, at least on some tracks, and cleaned up the sound, letting his love for country music show through with  Wurlitzer and pedal steel adding atmosphere and dynamics to several of the stand out tracks . This allowed Dando’s rich vocals to come to the fore, and he reached new heights lyrically on this album.  

The album kicks off with the fairly standard indie fare of Rockin Stroll and Confetti, but the title track then sets the whole album alight. The song is deceptively simple  both musically and lyrically, yet creates such a tangible sense of loss and regret, honing in on a couple of details that just won’t leave the singer alone and leave us with more questions than answers. Rudderless continues in a similar mood, another song filled with a sense of loss and offering one of Dando’s most heartfelt deliveries. The song finally unshackles itself in the last 30 seconds and becomes a Ramone’s coda to great effect. The song also contains some of Dando’s finest smart-dumb lyrics:

Slipped my mind that I could use my brain

Stayed up all night, crash on the plane !

Next up is My Drug Buddy, an everyday tale of scoring drugs and hanging out. The beauty of the song is how it resists the glamour or squalor rock musicians usually strive to conjure up on this subject, and instead focuses on the minutiae of hanging out, scoring and wandering around stoned after dark in a small town. There is no judgement in the song. The country style Wurlitzer beautifully complements Dando’s plaintive voice as the song reaches a simple, sincere conclusion:

I’m too much with myself, I wanna be someone else

Unfortunately, Dando spent rather too much time being someone else over the next twenty years, and inspiration and output dwindled, but here he is on the very top of his game.

 Another stand out slower track is Hannah and Gabi, which is drenched in pedal steel guitar to produce a beautifully lush arrangement, graced with lyrics that are again seeped in nostalgia, this time for a relationship that went south

Got me watching your eyes watching things go by outside,
Out the window of a train”

 With Hemingway like economy, Dando’s opening lines hook us straight into a tale of a love affair that failed to live up to expectations,  and two minutes later we feel we know the couple personally and have been through exactly these frustrations in our own relationships. The whole song is bitter sweet: the chorus containing the killer putdown:

I’m out walking around

You’re just one thing I’ve found

Dando’s great talent as a lyricist is to give us just enough details to be able to fill in the rest of the picture for ourselves.

Another favourite from this album is Bit Part, which starts of with some memorable screaming, followed by a stampeding bar chord descent before the core of the song emerges with the classic refrain

I just want a bit part in your life, a walk on would do fine..

Again Dando finds the perfect way to sum up a feeling we have all had, and probably failed to find the words to express effectively. There is something so effortless about the way he just captures these feelings and moments so precisely, and his ability to soundtrack each of these perceptions with just the right hook and rhythm sets him so far apart from the vast majority of singer songwriters.

Dando’s other great talent is for the cover version. Every time he covers a song, he seems so at home in it, like your good-looking friend who invariably looked way cooler than you when he borrowed your clothes (a trick only The Clash and The Stones have carried off with similar panache). This album finishes up with Frank Mills, a wonderful character sketch and a charming portrait of friendship. It sounds like the perfect Evan Dando song, but is in fact taken from the ancient hippy musical Hair. Needless to say, Dando sings it beautifully, with great phrasing and it sounds right at home alongside the originals on the album.

This is an album that never gets old, that handsomely repays every listen. It offers an unusually even balance of faster and slower number for an indie album, and over time the tracks that really stand out our those where Dando slows things down and lets his country heart come to the fore, not just in the instrumentation, but in the melancholy lyrics and mood.  I can think of few better ways of spending half an hour!

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