I never understood the flack that the Lemonheads always received from music scribes who labeled frontman Evan Dando as a dippy golden boy, or the band’s music as typified by their breakthrough It’s a Shame About Ray with inane misnomers like “bubble-grunge”. But that could have been due to the fact that I never had access to MTV when the album was released in 1992. Now that the live/music video compilation 2 Weeks in Australia has been issued on DVD for the first time, paired with a deluxe Collector’s Edition for Ray, I’m starting to understand, even if I don’t necessarily agree.
Nearly every video (most produced by former Head Jesse Peretz) features Dando tossing his hair back as he strums a guitar, a playful smile on his face, and no lack of attractive, swoon-baiting bopping around. It would have been hard at the time for any self-serious twenty-something music nerd male to watch, jealous as fuck over Dando’s charms, the sensitive slacker beaming like a young, blissed-out Ted Danson (or Matt Dillon’s character from Singles on speed). Dreamy. The ensuing backlash against the Lemonheads’ success was mostly derived from that image, and ignored and/or unfairly skewed the assessment of Dando’s songs, which, while occasionally brisk and seemingly naïve, were solid and affecting. As it turns out, they’re also enduring well beyond the stoner giggles and early ‘90s “fashions”.
It’s a Shame About Ray was not only a commercial smash for the Lemonheads, it was an artistic peak. Formed in the suburbs of Boston in 1986 by teenaged Dando, Peretz, and Ben Deily, the band was initially drawn to hardcore and punk, releasing a few albums for the indie Taang! that showcased minute-long bursts of Hüsker Dü and Black Flag-inspired rants (and occasionally the abrasive whine of Deily). But from 1987’s Hate Your Friends to 1988’s Lick, Dando gradually gave in to more and more innate pop and country sensibilities, betraying influences to Gram Parsons, Patsy Cline, and uh, Charles Manson, among others. Ray might have broken big after the inclusion of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”, but the band had already plenty of experience roughing up “Strange” and Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”.
In 1990 the band, now with Dando in complete control of the mic and songwriting duties, made its major label debut with Lovey, which featured an evolving grasp of sweet, melodic folk rock but suffered from muddy production and some clunky material. Whatever happened in the two years between Lovey and It’s a Shame About Ray must have been epic, however, as the latter is unmatched in the Lemonheads catalog for quality and consistency, with Dando writing benchmark songs for the ensuing singer-songwriter and alt-country subgenres.
Granted, the first pressing of It’s a Shame About Ray was only 29 minutes long. Songs like the opener “Rockin’ Stroll” and the spazzy “Ceiling Fan In My Spoon” rocket in and out in under two minutes, but long enough to ingrain their melodies in listeners’ heads. When the band does (relatively) stretch out, it’s for plaintive numbers such as the title track, “Rudderless”, and “My Drug Buddy”, whose sweetness belies a subtle yet intense loneliness and insight usually ascribed to more “serious” writers. “My Drug Buddy” (restored here to its full title after being neutered to “Buddy” in subsequent pressings to ward off Tipper Gore), in particular, is as well-crafted and poignant a song about drug abuse as you’re liable to ever hear. Without a speck of moralizing or sentimentality, Dando unveils a string of details and declarations that are inherently thought-provoking and sad. “She’s in the phone booth now / I’m looking in / Here comes a smile on her face / There’s still some of the same stuff we got yesterday’” is set up to contrast with “I’m too much with myself / I wanna be someone else”, each equally plain-sung by Dando’s honeyed baritone. “I love my drug buddy” gets repeated at the song’s close over a chord progression slightly inverted from the main theme, which adds a tinge of regret that both underscores and undercuts the lyric.
“Bit Part” and “Alison’s Starting to Happen” reconcile Dando’s punk past with his newfound prowess at catchiness and hooks. The first pairs a direct and repetitive statement, “I wanna bit part in your life / A walk-on would be fine”, with a punchy arrangement (and featuring Juliana Hatfield’s cute-as-hell backing vocals); and while some would dismiss the song for its simplicity, it’s effectively done. Between raising the octave between the first and second verses and amping up the intensity, the song does everything it needs to convey a very real desire in human relationships, then gets out. “Alison’s Starting to Happen” gleefully explores the beginnings of a crush in much the same way, and features a number of clever lines and images that reveal Dando’s knack for craft and sly romanticism (“She’s the puzzle piece behind the couch that makes the sky complete”).
But it’s songs like the pedal steel-washed “Hannah & Gabi” and the somber “The Turnpike Down” that are the album’s soul, their melancholy lending weight to the breezier tracks. “Hannah & Gabi”, also presented in this set in slightly speedier demo form, is sung from the perspective of an itinerant lover, or one on the cusp of a breakup, torn between necessity of what’s right and what would be easier but dishonest. Built on a disarmingly gentle acoustic riff, it’s one of the best songs Dando has written to this day. “The Turnpike Down” is very nearly as good, and could be the flip-side to the story of “Hannah and Gabi”, as the song’s character asks a heartbreaking question (“My country was of thee / Now why’d you have to leave?”) which transforms into a long lonely drive down the Massachusetts turnpike (“Butterscotch streetlamps mark my path / Mark my path down”). Contrary to the Lemonheads’ image as lightweights (often projected by the band itself), these songs were and remain the real deal.
If Rhino Records’ Collector’s Edition isn’t as exhaustive as similar compilations for other bands, that fact fits the album’s purposeful brevity. Ray benefits finally from a solid remastering, and retains the addition of “Mrs. Robinson” (recorded for the 25th anniversary of The Graduate, then added to new pressings to capitalize on its popularity). The aforementioned DVD is somewhat of a draw, if not for Dando’s stoned between-song ramblings than for early versions of later Lemonheads tracks “Being Around”, “It’s About Time”, and Lovey standouts “Half the Time” and “Ride With Me”.
Only one non-album song graces the CD, the b-side “Shaky Ground”, which is a little slight, since a number of extra-album songs exist from that period, including “Different Drum”, “Divan”, and multiple versions of songs that would later appear on Come on Feel the Lemonheads. But the slew of unreleased Ray demos is most welcome. Barely there home recordings of the songs on It’s A Shame About Ray prefigure Elliott Smith and other four-track enthusiasts of the late ‘90s for their intimacy and the sense they give that young Dando wasn’t the golden-haired pinup he was perceived to be, but a songwriter committed to spinning his musical and other obsessions in his own way.