The cover song is a unique entity. Its function is to showcase interpretive skills, to pay tribute to musical peers, or to generate a sense of authenticity and awareness of musical roots. Some acts, known as cover bands, create entire identities around the songs of a known artist or a collection of recognizable hits. More voguish and reaching beyond those straightforward purposes is the ironic cover, which highlights the unexpected tastes of the interpreting act. These covers ostensibly (often quite condescendingly) inoculate against actual cover bands’ perceived lack of sophistication. The sardonically covering artist always has the “just playing around” escape hatch. Ironic covers are occasionally inspired, like Antony Hegarty’s recent version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”. Others translate less favorably, such as the Devil Wears Prada’s heterodox take on Big Tymers’ “Still Fly”, a cover that serves as an accidental index of nu-rock’s most odious tendencies.
Lemonheads singer Evan Dando arguably owes some portion of his 1990s visibility to his band’s cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”. There are many kitschy routes Dando could have taken with the song, but he made it fit within the irresistible acoustic pop of It’s a Shame About Ray and revitalized the song for a new generation. Now, many years since his Lemonheads heyday, rather than do the same with a single album (a la Rise Above, Dirty Projectors’ re-imagining of Black Flag’s Damaged) or a single artist (Phosphorescent’s reverent To Willie), Dando offers an engaging blend of cover songs both kindred and unforeseen on new album Varshons.
Dando selected the songs for Varshons from mixes that the legendary Gibby Haynes had personally created for him over the years. Fittingly, Haynes is the producer of Varshons, joined by mixer by Anthony Saffery (Cornershop). The revolving lineup of Lemonheads musicians now includes Devon Ashley on drums, Vess Ruhtenburg on bass guitar, and John Perry on lead guitar and backing vocals. A combination of this personnel and astutely selected material results in the most varied Lemonheads outing in quite some time.
Varshons covers a lot of musical territory in a brief 33 minutes. This leanness is unsurprising when one considers that It’s a Shame About Ray did not even reach the half hour mark. What is noteworthy is the level of satisfaction the Lemonheads build into such a concise framework. Dando’s critics (at his peak the man suffered a torrent of inane press-induced hate) point to brevity as a hallmark of slackerdom, but a more objective view recognizes it as simply good editing. This is especially a virtue for a project that attempts to harness the strength of a well-sequenced mix tape.
Haynes and Dando prove to be adept curators. Similar to Tori Amos’s Strange Little Girls, most numbers here reveal unanticipated aspects of the artist’s perspective and aptitude. However, the album begins with interpretations that provide a natural, if perhaps not traditionally considered, link to the Lemonheads’ most well known work. For instance, the choice of Gram Parsons’ “I Just Can’t Take It Anymore” calls attention to the long-gestating folk strains that were always part of the Lemonheads’ so-called alternative rock. The original song, available on Another Side of This Life: The Lost Recordings of Gram Parsons, 1965-1966 represents the folk stage of Parsons’ own still-evolving style, which famously culminated with alternative country.
Also only a few degrees removed from the Lemonheads’ musical wavelength is Wire’s “Fragile”. Yet here the song, driven by an acoustic guitar, loses its considerable post-punk edge. The Lemonheads’ Hate Your Friends or Creator-era sound would have been a much better fit. Immediately correcting the course is “Layin’ Up with Linda”. Like a more vulgar “Delia’s Gone”, the original recording is a crude lo-fi paean to murderous love from the troubled mind of G.G. Allin. The Lemonheads version basks in the song’s pitch black comedy as it neatly accentuates the existing melody lines, inserts a modestly jubilant guitar solo, and barrels along with memorably harmonizing backing vocals. In short, the cover achieves the difficult task of synthesizing digestible sing-along pop with lyrics that evoke Vicious/Spungen/Allin depths of squalor and destruction.
Consistent with the mix ethos, Varshons presents tonally consistent sections. Haynes’ curating is especially evident in the album’s middle-section foray into psychedelic territory, which the band handles surprisingly well. The adaptation of “Green Fuz” finds wide spaces within what was originally a noisy garage rock number by Randy Alvey & Green Fuz. The Lemonheads slow the song to a drowsy pace and let the trippy, fuzzy textures gradually unfold. Building on the space-rock potential of “Green Fuz” is a relatively straightforward rendition of Sam Gopal’s “Yesterlove”, which maintains the meditative, quasi-hymnal qualities of the original. Most successful is “Dandelion Seeds”, the groove of which actually surpasses its source material. July’s original is a pleasurable nugget, but it meanders too much. In the Lemonheads’ hands, the song is noticeably more energetic, touched with the influence of Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane. Vocally, Dando absolutely nails an illustrious interlude that is the song’s signature moment.
Yet not everything on Varshons thrives. The uncomplicated take on Arling & Cameron’s disco curiosity “Dirty Robot” is ill-advised in a number of ways. Not only is the song too incongruous (even in this diverse collection), but the lead vocal performance by featured artist Kate Moss is flat and insipid (even for this deadpan song). Primal Scream collaborated with Moss to strong effect on 2002’s “Some Velvet Morning”, but here it just seems like stunt casting. And while Linda Perry’s “Beautiful” remains an unimpeachable modern ballad, it is hardly a song that begs to be covered on an album that otherwise benefits from lesser-known selections.
One song on Varshons that does strike a perfect balance of popular recognition, proficient interpretation, and respectfully unique vision is “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”. While many Leonard Cohen covers disrespect the master with their obvious calculation and movie soundtrack-ready polish, Dando and his Heavy costar Liv Tyler deliver a breathy, delicate duet of genuine affection. Tyler’s solo verse brings to mind Judy Collins’ own distinctive cover of the song.
Varshons may risk misinterpretation because of its “covers” veneer. But this is no standards collection and Dando isn’t singing the hits. The album is instead a sort of late-career triumph for the Lemonheads. By convincingly honoring this significant rock pedigree, the band reveals a neglected or heretofore hidden stylistic agility.