"Not just a pretty face” could be an epitaph for Evan Dando of The Lemonheads. As much as we live in a culture that values beauty so highly, having model-grade good looks can have actual drawbacks, foremost of which being that nobody will take you seriously when you try to do something other than being crazy hot. That’s a double-edged sword Dando knows well: His reputation as a junkie heartthrob in the ’90s overshadowed the fact that he was a killer songwriter. People spent more time paying attention to the sharp lines of his chin than on the even-sharper hooks laced throughout his power pop music.
Taking his band’s name from the candy of the same name, Dando often said in interviews that it was because the candies were “sweet on the inside and sour on the outside.” You’d think that the same principle would apply to his songwriting, but the music of The Lemonheads works in the opposite way. Dando draws you in with sweet melodies, sunny licks, and his drowsy, stoned-roommate vocals. Listen to his work for long enough, though, and that sweet layer wears down and you’re faced with the dark, bitter heart of his work: addiction, loneliness, melancholy, and regret.
Coming together in Boston in 1986, The Lemonheads started out as a punkier, more ramshackle outfit before signing on to a major label during the great alt-rock gold rush of the ’90s, when the music business was desperate to find the next Nirvana. Their biggest hit ended up being a goofy “Mrs. Robinson” cover that couldn’t have sounded more tossed-off and half-assed if they tried. What press attention they got involved either Dando’s looks, Dando’s public struggles with drug addiction, or his on-again-off-again relationship with bassist Julianna Hatfield. Rarely did their music get the attention it deserved, which is a damn shame, because they recorded one of the era’s best power pop records.
A master-class in writing taut, concise pop-rock, 1992’s It’s A Shame About Ray is a record that’s full of indelible moments. There’s Hatfield screaming the intro to “Bit Part” like a child demanding their favorite toy right now, and her flat, matter-of-fact backing vocals singing “tired of getting high” on Dando’s desperate song “Rudderless.” There’s the sweet, melancholic balladeering of “My Drug Buddy” and the way the guitars get crunchy and kick into high gear on “Alison’s Starting to Happen.” Whereas so many albums about drugs treat the subject with gloomy tones and heavy-handedness, It’s A Shame About Ray is a powerful record because it treats it so casually. Dando coats the songs in just enough sweetness that it takes a few listens for Ray’s sourness to seep into your consciousness.
After going on hiatus in 1997, Dando started using The Lemonheads name again in 2005 to release new records that hark back to their punkier roots. His most recent work has been a pair of cover albums. On the first Varshons record, he covered a dizzying range of artists, from GG Allin to Christina Aguilera. On this year’s Varshons II, Dando focuses on his love of country music, something that shined through on classic Lemonheads cuts like “My Drug Buddy.” Doing covers of Lucinda Williams, John Prine, and even The Eagles, Dando shows off a real knack for doing alt-country. If anyone from the “120 Minutes” era can pull off a late career transformation into the next Gram Parsons, Varshons II makes a compelling case that Dando has what it takes. And it wouldn’t hurt that he’d probably look really good in a cowboy hat and Nudie suit.