Overdue and unexpected in 2003, the solo return from the former alt rock pin-up still has secrets tucked between its confessions.
“I'm not whatever they're making me but maybe it'll get the music heard and maybe when I'm approaching 50 I'll still be doing it,” Evan Dando told GQ magazine in 2015. Stepping over that line this year, Dando has stuck to his word, reissuing an expanded edition of his first solo album from 2003 and going on tour to support the release.
In that same GQ interview, the matter of how things might have turned out if Dando had made all the right career decisions comes up at end, though it isn’t pushed far. Asking how things might have turned out differently isn’t the most productive line of questioning, but it isn’t easy to shrug off the ‘what if?’ that hangs over the Lemonheads’ burst of success in the early 1990s. Ascending to the seat of full control after other founding members Ben Deily and Jesse Peretz stepped aside after Lick and Lovey respectively, the perfectly fine Boston punk band metamorphosed on It’s a Shame about Ray.
Hints of what Dando could do with gentler melodies came early on Lick in 1988 with “Mallo Cup” and “A Circle of One”, but the Lemonheads’ fifth album was both their commercial and artistic breakthrough. Making a leap as a songwriter and a lyricist, Dando used matured chord changes to frame misty scenes of an early adulthood spent wandering off path. The bittersweet title song could stop a bull, or Regis & Kathy Lee, in its tracks. Even the Hair and (later) Simon & Garfunkel covers tacked on to the end fit right in.
Part of momentum is timing, and with the Lemonheads’ next two albums, one came a little too soon, and the other came a little late. It seems clear now that Come on Feel the Lemonheads was rushed into the marketplace barely more than a year after Ray while the band’s music and Dando’s cheekbones were still on the tip of the public’s tongue. The first half of the record was significantly stronger than the second, and even the best songs, like “Into Your Arms”, felt like they could use a bit more of the detail given to every corner of Ray.
Three years later, Car Button Cloth was given a “where have you been?” reception by some in the music press, who knew very well Dando had been off hanging out with Oasis. Again, there were some prime Lemonheads songs to be found on the album (also again, mostly on side A), but the whole glory hadn’t been recaptured. There’s a full record’s worth of material between Come on Feel the Lemonheads and Car Button Cloth good enough to give Ray a run for its money, but all together the band appeared to have gone from ‘effortlessly brilliant’ to ‘brilliance that wasn’t putting in the effort.’
Baby I’m Bored, just like any musical statement, doesn’t have to be listened to with any contextual baggage, but in this case knowing even just a bit of the backstory makes for a more complete, sympathetic reception. If the album sounds a little mid-tempo tired right from the start, right from the title, there are reasons for that. Though he hadn’t exactly been inactive in between Car Button Cloth and the first disc under his name alone, Dando’s previous hiatus had still been doubled. That’s a considerable amount of time no matter what level you’re living at, and a lot of reckoning with the past is done on Baby I’m Bored.
Heavy as its history may weigh, the album isn’t bogged down in regret. “I can’t believe how far I slid,” goes the self-explanatory “The Same Thing You’ve Thought Hard About Is the Same Part I Can Live Without”, one of the record’s more vintage-Lemonheads rock tunes, “But secretly I’m glad I did.” A couple tracks later, Ben Lee, who wrote two of the dozen songs on Baby I’m Bored, does the reckoning for Dando with “All My Life”: “To be filled with hatred / For the time I've wasted / And I'm so impatient / For a new sensation.”
Among the other dozen unreleased selections offered on the bonus disc that comes with this reissue, it is a bit telling that the only old school Lemonheads song included is a live take of “Hannah & Gabi”. The studio version on It’s a Shame About Ray features no less than Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of the Doobie Brothers playing the memorable pedal steel guitar solo. It was the first prominent instance of a country influence in Dando’s music, which shined through even more after that on “Big Gay Heart” and then “The Outdoor Type”.
“Baby I’m Bored never goes all in, but it wades up to its hips. “My Idea” and “It Looks Like You” are that kind of alternative country they just don’t make anymore put through a Northeastern filter. “Hard Drive,” the other Ben Lee contribution, and the forthright “Why Do You Do This to Yourself” (“You stayed awake for 14 days / And then you slept a week / Why do you do this to yourself?”) recount soft nights and hard mornings with a mellow twang. “Rancho Santa Fe” even rides into borderland ballad territory.
That said, it isn’t as stylistically consistent as it feels on first approach, or even as it might to old fans taking this opportunity to return to it. The album’s sequencing has a curious way of drawing attention from, rather than to, some of the most distinct songs. It is easy to miss the handclapping Spoon-ish jaunt “Waking Up” coming between two downbeat westerns. Right before the end, “Stop My Head” is Dando-meets-LA-era-Elliott Smith, which isn’t surprising given that it is one of a number of songs on “Baby I’m Bored co-written with Jon Brion, who not long before had worked closely with Smith.
Dando’s gift for effortlessness returns on the closing “In the Grass All Wine Colored”, a simple, lovely, memorable strummer that circles itself until coming to rest. The bonus disc may not present any alternate takes that do better than the album versions, but it does include the vintage Lemonheads-esque “Tongue Tied” and “Whoops”, and the offbeat “Au Bord De La Seine” and “Walk in the Woods with Lionel Ritchie”, all of which are worth preserving. Placing that live “Hannah & Gabi” next to a live “The Same Thing You Thought Hard About…” highlights their similar opening chords, and the people in the crowd cheering the start of latter sound as if they might think they’re hearing the former, but they also sound just as happy when the truth sinks in.