Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Random Release: Up Their Plaid Sleeves

One of the “positive” results of grunge hitting the big time in the early 90s, and subsequently dragging alternative music into the mainstream, is that a lot of hardworking acts who had teetered on the fringes of success touring the “college rock” circuit finally got enough exposure to have a bit of a payday. A few that come to mind would include Sonic Youth, the Connells, Juliana Hatfield, Dinosaur Jr., (possibly) the Breeders and others, but the one that stands out most to me is the Lemonheads, led by indie heartthrob party boy, Evan Dando.

Deny those eyes...I dare you!

A lot of my friends in college really, really hearted the Lemonheads. I mean a lot. I liked a couple of songs here and there, but mainly spent a lot of time making fun of the Lemonheads ‘cos I was sort of a jerk and I had nothing else better to do. But when I got older and a bit bored with what I was listening to, I gave their “breakthrough” album, It’s a Shame About Ray, another go and decided it's not half bad -- in fact it's quite good. I then explored the remainder of their catalog only to discover that aside from a handful of songs (the ones I’d liked previously), the Lemonheads are pretty bleh up until Ray. (There J-Mower, I said it.)

However, I’m not really here to talk about It’s a Shame About Ray, but their 1993 follow up (really, 1993???), Come On Feel the Lemonheads. The difference between Ray and Come On Feel is in ways marginal and yet noticeable. I mean at the end of the day, this is a Lemonheads album, but while Ray feels like a slew of songs written during a rush of (dare I say) divine inspiration, Come On Feel is a more grounded, thought out, even mature album. Evan had a bit o’ brass in pocket and so the time on his hands necessary to further develop ideas. Not to say that anything on Ray is what I would consider half baked (drug reference intended) or fragmented, but many of the songs are rather short and abrupt, while Come On Feel, though in no way “epic” like a Rush or a Genesis, is somewhat broader in scope, richer in tone, more filled out around the edges. What’s more, while Ray maintains a consistent tone, picking up, taking off and landing in just under 30 minutes, Come on Feel dabbles and meanders for close to an hour (which, granted, does include wading through a bit of dead space for a bonus track), exploring power pop, country rock and acoustic balladry that, while producing some fine moments throughout, leaves the listener a touch unsettled by the closing notes of the rambling (and rather pointless) The Jello Fund.

Evan, again, wears his heart on his sleeve for the majority of this album, weaving tales of love and infatuation and rather sordid times (drugs, fame, etc) into 2-3 minute pop ditties. Though never quite as confessional or true-to-life “gritty” as some of the darker, more memorable moments of Ray, Come On Feel still maintains a sense of “been there,” as if Dando is writing at least from observation if not experience. This enables quirky and/or potentially awkward tracks like Style (or its counterpart Rick James Style), Big Gay Heart (one of a couple songs featuring Sneaky Pete of the Flying Burrito Brothers on slide guitar) and Being Around a passable sincerity that may have been lost coming from anywhere other than Dando’s sleepy baritone croon. Of course the “standout” track is the straightforward, ballad-rocker Into Your Arms, which I can remember hearing for the first time while riding around in the back of the parenthetically aforementioned J-Mower’s car (and rolling my eyes) and which I know made it onto dozens, nay hundreds upon hundreds of mix tapes between 1993 and, oh, let’s say mid 1995. Ironically, this song wasn’t penned by Dando or anyone else in the band, and isn’t even one of the better tracks on the album, as I’ll take The Great Big No or Favorite T any day.

The important thing about Come On Feel is that it proves The Lemonheads had more than one album’s worth of good tunes up their plaid sleeves. And even though the album has its difficulties, it’s still a worthy follow up to the slightly more accessible Ray. Unfortunately Evan and crew sorta derailed in the wake of Come on Feel, and though 1996’s Car Button Cloth (1996, really???) had its moments, the boat had sailed, the momentum was lost and nobody really cared about the Lemonheads any more (which is what I’d been saying in the first place). As a result, there was nothing but a best of and a Dando solo album to hold fans over until 2006’s self-titled “return to form” – as in hearkening back to their Hate Your Friends/Creator days…but that’s for another post.

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