2/23/2008

I've never been too good with names (but I remember faces).

So this morning I woke up and jumped in the shower, going quickly because I was running late, and suddenly I had a Lemonheads song stuck in my head. It was one of the less famous songs from "It's A Shame About Ray", and it just underscored for me the feeling I've always had, that that album is one of the truly perfect pop albums of our time. And suddenly nothing else would do but that I had to hear this album again, so now, after a hectic morning, I'm settled in at work and I'm listening to it and of course, even after owning it for 15 years (!), it's still perfect. There are 8 other albums credited to either The Lemonheads or Evan Dando, and although some are better than others, I don't think Dando and whoever he was working with at the time ever came up with another record this amazing. In other situations, I've heard people discuss how frustrating it can be to see an artist who can come up with a full album of pure pop greatness at any time to instead fill records with experiments and half-baked tossoffs. Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices is a great example here, but I don't think Evan Dando is. Dude has released plenty of records that were half great and half annoying, but I've never believed that he had it in him to just churn out A-level material on a consistent basis. Evan Dando, even today, is a troubled, disorganized guy, and I'm sure that whatever record he releases at any point is truly the best he can do right then. Thank God, then, that he was at least able to do this well once.

"It's A Shame About Ray" is less punk than any Lemoheads album that had come before it, at least where distortion is concerned. And yet, its length is very punk--13 songs, just over 33 minutes in length, and before their cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" was added to the album, its 12 original songs lasted less than half an hour. A lot of times in situations like the one that arose when "Mrs. Robinson" was released on the soundtrack to "Wayne's World 2" and then surprised everyone by becoming a mainstream hit, I tend to view the later version of the album with the surprise hit single tacked on as ersatz, and the original version to be the pure one. However, in this case, I think the album really benefits from the addition of "Mrs. Robinson". Instead of ending with Evan's acoustic demo of "Frank Mills", from the musical "Hair", the only true tossoff on this album, we get a second cover song that's catchier and more fully formed, giving the album a much more solid ending. The "Mrs. Robinson" cover (which, by the way, Evan legendarily hated) turned out to be just what the album needed.

The song I woke up hearing in my head was "Hannah And Gabi", track 9 on the album and certainly one of its lesser tracks--if that can really be said about anything on here. It's a quiet, introspective, mostly acoustic track, and even though the words would look trivial separated from their musical context, Evan's delivery of them, combined with the mood set by the music, makes it an incredibly evocative track. I've always felt, when listening to it, like I used to as a teenage kid, riding in the back seat of my parents' car listening to my Walkman and staring out the window, wishing I were absolutely anywhere else. At the beginning of the song, Evan describes himself as staring out a train window, which is pretty interesting considering that the music evokes such a similar setting in my own mind. Ultimately, evoking a mood is all the song really does--there appears to be a narrative here, something about a breakup or a relationship that never quite happened at all, but I can't get enough out of what's actually revealed in the lyrics to understand what happened. That's OK, though; it's not really necessary for enjoyment of the song.

One song on this album that I have always been able to relate to is "Bit Part", which begins with bassist Juliana Hatfield screaming "I just want a bit part in your life!" Then the music kicks in and it's upbeat, but nowhere near the explosion her screams lead you to expect. By the way, before I go on, I know that Evan Dando wrote most of the music on this record all by himself, but I think Juliana Hatfield's presence on "It's A Shame About Ray" is pretty essential to its brilliance. Her soft, pretty backing vocals (and occasional screams) fit perfectly with Evan's lead vocals, and there's something about the relationship between Evan and Juliana that, I've always believed, fueled Evan's creativity and made this album a career peak for him. You can see it in the band photo on the inner sleeve--at first glance, it's all cameraderie, with the three Lemonheads (the third being drummer David Ryan) holding cigarettes and beers and sitting together backstage, presumably after a show. But look closer--on the left, David's drinking his beer as the photo is taken, as if he's trying to look casual in the face of tension. Evan's on the right, with one arm around Juliana and his other hand on her shoulder. In the middle, Juliana has her knees and elbows drawn together and appears as if she's trying to smile but just not quite making it. Maybe the narrative I've always constructed around this album is completely fictional, but it plays well in my head--after the departure of longtime bassist Jesse Peretz, Evan gets his friend Juliana, whom he's always secretly had a crush on, to become the new bass player, then finds his crush nearly impossible to deal with in the close quarters required by touring and recording. This tension drives a lot of the songwriting he's doing, but also strains his relationship with Juliana. Tellingly, by the time of "Mrs. Robinson", recorded six months after the rest of the album, she'd been replaced by Australian transplant Nic Dalton. The official story is that Juliana was just filling in, returning the favor for Evan's having played bass on the first Blake Babies album, and this may be true, considering that Juliana still does a lot of backup vocals on "Come On Feel the Lemonheads". But then, there's also the story about how "It's About Time", from "Come On Feel", was really about how it was about time that Juliana either a) lose her virginity, or b) sleep with Evan. Or c), both. No matter which it was, when Juliana found out, she got angry with Evan, and their relationship was never the same.

So anyway, "Bit Part". Maybe I was imagining all of that tension, and maybe all the songs about girls on "It's A Shame About Ray" (and there are a bunch) are about someone else. But when I listen to "Bit Part", it's hard not to believe in the narrative I've constructed around this album. "I want a bit part in your life--a walk-on would be fine." That's one of about 6 lines in the song, the one that's repeated the most. I've felt that way plenty of times myself; you know the drill, right? You like a girl, you know she's not into you, and you're still willing to accept the least little token of her affection, even if it only torments you during private moments, even if it keeps some tiny spark of hope alive long past any point where it should. I've had bit parts in lots of girls' lives, and I'm sure they were all a lot more important to me than I was to them. It's depressing when I'm thinking about it late at night, but when I hear Evan Dando sing about the exact same thing, it's poignant. It makes me feel better, because (even if he's not singing about Juliana Hatfield in this song) I know I'm not alone in feeling the way I do.

"Bit Part" is one of the shorter songs on the record, and it takes on the structure that a bunch of other songs on here also use--a verse, a chorus, another verse, another chorus, done. It's about a minute and a half long. "Ceiling Fan In My Spoon", "It's A Shame About Ray" and "Confetti" are written in the same way, and this probably has a lot to do with the album being so short. It's cool, though--the songs don't need any more than they get. If anything, they leave you wanting a bit more, which has always seemed far preferable to me than songs that go on too long and make you tire of them before they end.

One song here that has a more complex structure is "Rudderless". Other than the cover of "Mrs. Robinson", it's the longest song on the album, and it was a big part of my choosing to buy this album back when I was a 17 year old senior in high school with no job and no real money to speak of. You see, I used to sit in my room with blank tapes in my stereo and make recordings of the local college radio station. They played legitimately underground rock music, but only after 11 PM, and I would stay up waiting for the rock programming to start, then put a tape in the stereo and go to bed. One morning, I woke up to discover that, towards the end of the tape, there was a song from the new Lemonheads album. It was "Rudderless", and I really liked it, but then the tape ran out halfway through the last verse. I was quite bummed. Finally getting to hear the whole thing when I bought the album was quite awesome. I could relate to all the stuff in the words about being alone and uncertain of what direction to take. And when Evan said "I guess I don't wanna die," I could understand it both as hope and ambivalence--the feeling that things might get better, but the worry that they'll get worse. By the end of the song, he's singing one line over and over: "A ship without a rudder's like a ship without a rudder's like a ship without a rudder." Yeah, I've been there too. I think maybe I'm there right now.

The Lemonheads - Rudderless
The Lemonheads - Bit Part
The Lemonheads - Hannah And Gabi

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2 Comments:

Blogger Nick said...

Great post! I had a moment on the subway last night while listening to Come On Feel The Lemonheads and was awash in good feelings

4:08 PM  
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3:11 AM  

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