It’s the early 1990s in New England. You’ve got a free afternoon, so you round up your friends, one of whom you have a crush on, to get a little high and walk around until something happens to you. That’s the rough plot of the Lemonheads‘ It’s a Shame About Ray. Released in June of 1992, the album was the band’s fifth overall but second for Atlantic Records, eventually being certified gold in the US, the UK, and Australia. Its 30th-anniversary deluxe edition, courtesy of Fire Records, offers the remastered record plus B-sides, demos, and covers.
The original album remains a paragon of ’90s pop rock. It opens with “Rockin’ Stroll”, told from the perspective of a blissed-out baby inside a stroller being wheeled around outside: “People’s knees / And trunks of trees / Smile at me”. That is followed by “Confetti”, which frontperson Evan Dando wrote about his parents’ divorce: “She just wanted him to love her, but he didn’t / He took to the woods and wandered in it / Walked along and on until they couldn’t.” Then there’s “My Drug Buddy”, with backing vocals from bassist Juliana Hatfield, which is the tale of scoring “some of the same stuff we got yesterday” as a female friend makes the crucial phone call. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter provides slide guitar on “Hannah & Gabi” (the band would lean heavily into this twang on their next album, 1993’s Come on Feel the Lemonheads). It’s a divine half-hour of songs about familial, romantic, and platonic relationships and bumming around town.
The 30th-anniversary reissue includes demos of nine of the album’s 12 songs. They sound like exactly what they are, and most of the songs benefit from studio production, but they also plainly show what a gifted songwriter Dando is. The raw material here is so strong that it’s a shame about “Mrs. Robinson”, the band’s breakout Simon & Garfunkel cover that features an audible bong rip and is easily the most disposable track on the record. Recorded to celebrate the 25th anniversary VHS release of the 1967 film The Graduate, the song was tacked on to a re-release of It’s a Shame About Ray after it became a massive hit. (The first Lemonheads single with a semi-wide audience was another cover: their 1989 version of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”.)
“Mrs. Robinson” served as a point of entry for the general public, but the Lemonheads were the last band that needed one. Though they hailed from the college-rock utopia of Boston, there’s nothing pretentious about their music. Dando never quite got the credit he deserved as a songwriter due to the success of “Mrs. Robinson” and his good fortune in the face department, both of which found the Lemonheads overexposed immediately.
Included in the reissue’s set of “Essential Extras” are the Ray-era B-side “Shakey Ground” and a 1992 KCRW performance of “My Drug Buddy” with Hatfield. We get another couple of covers. “Divan”, Dando’s take on a song by Australian band Smudge is a sublime ode to the titular piece of furniture set to the chords from “There She Goes”. There’s also a tremendous low-key version of ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You”. Like his Bizarro contemporary Kurt Cobain, Dando was never afraid to champion the saccharine mainstream pop he grew up loving.
This deluxe version also offers a couple of acoustic versions of songs from the original album, including the reissue’s third version of “Confetti” (which is fine because it’s the best song on the album) and the wonderful “Alison’s Starting to Happen”, written about Smudge drummer Alison Galloway. (Australian power-pop has always been some of the best in the world—and remains so—and it makes sense that Dando would gravitate to it.)
The bonus material on this anniversary reissue bolsters the fact that Dando is one of the best songwriters of his generation, with an incredible ear for hooks and an appreciation of the pop greats before him. It’s a Shame About Ray remains a near-flawless album in a genre described derisively, at the time of its release, as bubble-grunge. It’s not edgy, and it’s not complicated, but it’s incredibly enjoyable and relatable, and that’s what the Lemonheads have always done best. Frankly, there’s no reason not to love it.