Evan Dando’s Paradox
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Theseus’s paradox poses the following question: If you replace an entire ship, plank by plank, is it still the same ship in the end?
What about a band? For the first Lemonheads album in 10 years — titled simply “The Lemonheads” so nobody misses the significance — Evan Dando hasn’t resuscitated the old material or reconvened any of the dozen-or-so musicians who’ve played in the group over the years. No, he’s playing all new songs with an all new lineup (now with former Descendents Bill Stevenson and Karl Alvarez). But this is the old Lemonheads in at least one respect: After a solo-album dalliance with hushed country and a stint (by all accounts disastrous) serving as replacement frontman for the MC5, Mr. Dando has returned to the jangly, early-’90s sound that defined his band. “It really sounds like the Lemonheads. Maybe a little better,” Mr. Dando contends in the press materials for the new album.
Well, yes and no. All the old elements are there: the bright, strummed guitar; the half-sensical run-on lyrics; the self-indulgent misery. But they don’t quite add up the way they used to.
During the peak Lemonheads years — between 1992 and 1996 — every album produced at least one transcendent power-pop song that threatened to become a crossover hit: “It’s A Shame About Ray” in 1992; “Into Your Arms” and “Great Big No” in 1993; and “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You” in 1996. That they never quite became hits doesn’t detract from their quality. “The Lemonheads” lacks such a quintessentially-Lemonheads song.
A few do come close.The contrast between slow, muddy choruses and bright, upbeat verses on “In Passing” highlights Dando’s talent for vocal melody. And “No Backbone” makes the most of the present lineup, setting Dando’s sunny strumming against a backdrop of Descendents-style power-punk and energetic curlicues from the molten guitar of Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis. The storyline is a bit of a blur — something about unfeeling sex — but the self-loathing comes through loud and clear: “Addictively, I’ll stick to the safety of the script/but I know I’ll end up settling for a less than perfect fit.”
For those who came of age in the early 1990s, Mr. Dando was a hunkier and less-troubled (on the surface anyway) counterpart to Kurt Cobain. With his famous friends and pinup-good-looks — Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie both appeared in Lemonheads videos, and still Mr. Dando was the prettiest thing in them — he seemed to have the perfect life.
Ben Lee captured a generation’s hero-worship when he sang of the goldilocked frontman: “I wish I was him, he gets the women at his feet/with all his cool friends, he gets his records for free/I wish I was him, he’s got no enemies/I wish I was him.”
But the perfect life isn’t easy, or so it appeared. As the decade wore on and the Lemonheads failed to meet the commercial expectations heaped upon them, the cracks began to show. Mr. Dando seemed to be reading from the script of his own hero, ill-fated country rocker Gram Parsons, when he began partying with the famously libertine Gallagher brothers and showing up at interviews voiceless from smoking crack.
He achieved some measure of emotional healing and perspective on his lost years with “Baby I’m Bored,” his excellent, overlooked 2003 solo effort. The songs were beautiful, regretful, and intimately personal. Only one of the new batch approaches this level of maturity. “Become the Enemy,” with its languid guitar and vocal harmonies, sounds like an electrified country tune. The words are those of a man who has forgiven himself for his past, but holds himself responsible for his present: “It’s not your fault/yeah, things didn’t turn out the way you dreamed in school/and now you’re raising two/but it’s your fault when you raise a pointed finger at the one who loves you,” he sings.
For the most part, Mr. Dando eschews such thoughtful introspection here, preferring emotional vagaries and rhymes for rhymes sake instead. Don’t get me wrong: The words sound just as deep and mysterious as they always have rolling off Mr. Dando’s silvery tongue. But they don’t amount to much on the page. From the song “Pittsburgh”: “With a little bit of common sense/you can lose a lot of innocence in this world/you can leave yourself behind/in the middle of coincidence/see the world in the present tense/oh mother, your kids are so inclined.” Come again?
A trippy hash-rock tune, “Let’s Just Laugh” proffers blissful nihilism: “We can never do anything about anything anyway/whatever will be, I guess we’ll see/so let’s just laugh.” On “Baby’s Home,” regret becomes resignation becomes comic-book violence as Mr. Dando imagines catching his wife and her lover. “I’ll cut you in half with a double shot blast,” he sings, “and I’ll pound on his head with a stone/till I think I can stand on my own.”
Mr. Dando’s refusal to grow up or to treat his misery seriously does provide a hollow sort of continuity. Maybe this is the same old Lemonheads after all. One plank in the ship remains the same: the one Mr. Dando’s walking.