|The Lemonheads - It's a Shame About Ray |
Original Release 1 out of 5 stars
Demos and DVD Extras 3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
It’s a shame the Lemonheads chose to release their fifth album, 1992’s “It’s A Shame About Ray” in its pugnacious and persistently migraine-inducing electric form. The half-speed acoustic demos outdo the final throat-burning versions visited on the public with such ease you can only hope the person making the group’s career decisions also doesn’t control their money -- ‘cause they’re gonna go broke. The acoustic versions are sung with more passion, have distinctive influences, and, minus drummer David Ryan’s primordial pounding, won’t make your ears bleed. Of course an acoustic album from a group known for its fuzzed-out clamor would have tanked. The alternative crowd wasn’t ready for beautiful music from the Lemons. But now you can have it all on the Deluxe Edition of “It’s A Shame About Ray”… the sweet acoustic sounds in their infancy and the sour power punk it morphed into, plus a DVD of the band bouncing around the outback performing many of the album’s song’s for a third time. Very few albums can stand up to the scrutiny of three different versions of the same song, even if it shows the progression from demos to completed work to live renditions. In the Lemon’s case they didn’t even get that right – the deluxe edition goes from the final versions back in time to the demos, then to the live torture tunes. No matter. Less is more. It’s a shame… but too much Ray causes scurvy.
The Lemonheads’ head sucker, guitarist/disinterested vocalist Evan Dando, formed the group in 1986. To date, the group has had more members than a bushel of fruit, including Juliana Hatfield (Blake Babies), who must have been juiced to take on the role of bassist for the album. The original release of “It’s About Ray” was the first Lemon to squeeze its way onto the charts, rolling to #68. The sudden interest in the group came from a song that wasn’t even on the album. When “The Graduate” was re-released on video, some slacker came up with the heinous idea of re-recording “Mrs. Robinson,” one of Simon and Garfunkel’s more vapid, but time honored tunes. It didn’t seem possible that the remake could be any worse than the original, but the Lemonhead’s raucous and downright disrespectful version caught the ears of the college crowd. It received a boast from its inclusion on the “Wayne’s World 2” soundtrack, and when the album was reissued, “Mrs. Robinson” was tacked on, further hyping sales. The band was happy for the recognition, even if some members admitted they weren’t in love with the song either. Put that in your pantry with your cupcakes.
It’s A Shame About Ray…The remastered original release
An acoustic guitar is used to drive “Confetti,” which quickly shreds into disarray. Done at a pace where you can understand what Dando’s saying (unlike the unlistenable amphetamine opener, “Rockin’ Stroll”), Dando’s detached doomsday vocal style brings to mind the Smith’s Morrissey. “He kinda woulda sorta shoulda loved her.” I kinda sorta almost like this song, Evan. An inventive low-end guitar solo makes this power pop worth listening to once, but overall, it’s as thin as confetti.
The title track spins more power pop, hijacking an acoustic guitar as its rhythmic base. Ryan’s drums are finally on the same page with the group’s forceful dynamics. Dando gives a very wan performance, but at least there’s an attempt at adding some harmonics; and while Ryan’s in step with the style, he still needs to back it down a bit. He doesn’t have the creativity to warrant being such a nuisance. He’s a metronome, not a percussionist.
“Rudderless” follows -- pointless is more like it. I’m still waiting for one Dando’s songs to show me something. (As I later discovered listening to the demos, it wasn’t so much the songs as the format.) Here’s another whiny, disinterested non-dandy Dando vocal, more thudding drumming, and an underpinning acoustic. And let’s embarrass Juliana Hatfield by having her chime in for a few bars. Too bad her contribution is contrived and makes her sound as mechanical as one of Robert Palmer’s video dolls. And rhyming pass with ass is just lazy and doesn’t get it done.
“My Drug Buddy” offers a needed embellishment -- whoa, a keyboard! Having been hammered at like anti-aircraft shells bouncing off of a kamikaze for the past four songs, hearing even a brief intro by a Hammond is a God send. The Head’s pull back the power pop routine a bit, so its no revelation this made the airwaves – substance and style = popularity. This has the lethargy one would associate with a “drug buddy,” most likely that lolling friend who always took too many Quaaludes and nodded off on the couch. (C’mon, everybody knew somebody like that.) “Drug Buddy” is the closest the Heads have come to performing something that inspires a reaction other than projectile vomiting. But they really need a drummer that can do something other than hit his kit as if he’s Sylvester the Cat trying to eradicate Tweetie Bird with a club. “I’m too much with myself, I wanna be someone else.” Can’t say I blame you, Evan. I wanted to be the guy in charge of renewing or breaking your record contract when the previous four songs were playing. (One break coming up.)
“The Turnpike Down” leads the listener back down the deafening, ruinous road of guitars being played like bundles of lit dynamite. And here’s another in a long list of detriments – dandy Dando has developed the annoying habit of repeating himself: “Mark my path down…Mark my path down.” You bet, dandy. I’ll take you down the turnpike and into coyote infested woods with a copy of this CD and a rack of lamb around your neck and leave you there.
“I just want a bit part in your life!” an obviously unhinged Polly Noonan screams as a prelude to “Bit Parts.” Right away you know your listening pleasure will be nil. Polly is a Lemonhead “muse” (re: groupie), and typifies the off-center Prozac powered personage that might find this three-minute steeplechase appealing. This comes off as three-quarter paced Ramones, which in my book ain’t good.
The next time I ask for variety, I hope these guys don’t give it to me. The addition of the steel guitar to “Hannah and Gabi” is like asking someone to scratch your back with a dull axe. On the positive side (yes, there is one), the playing is tasty and fluid, but lyrically, “Hannah and Gabi” is dull pseudo-country.
“Kitchen” cooks up more hand-clapping commercial Ramones at a one-third impulse speed. “Bop-bop-badu. Bop-bop-badu” indeed. The Lemons unravel when they goose the pace, and the gear-grinding solo at the end doesn’t help.
“Frank Mills” is a short story set to an acoustic backing. At least Ryan and his Og the Cavemen drumming isn’t involved, which gives Frankie a shot. This tries to be as cute as a Jonathan Richman stream of conscious babbler, but makes dandy sound like a stalker more in love with his hero than his girlfriend.
Quite possibly the worst cover tune of all time, the Head’s version of “Mrs. Robinson” ranks highly in the “What the hell were they thinking?” category, along with Donna Summer’s debasement of “McArthur Park” (you know you’re in trouble if Richard Harris can out sing you) and Guns and Hoses Ethel Merman interpretation of “Live and Let Die,” which should have done the later. Done at a speed freak pace, this Mrs. Robinson has all the attraction of a trailer park denizen dressed in Birkenstocks and a flannel knapsack who forgot to put her teeth in.
More Head…The Bonus Material
“It’s A Shame About Ray” is such a slight, disposable collection of noise you wonder why it was given a green light in the first place. The record execs must have heard Dando’s acoustic versions first because there are some dandy’s amidst the head Lemon’s unadorned samples.
The demo for “Shaky Ground” offers Dando solo on his acoustic. There’s no rushing and you can actually understand what he’s singing. This is enjoyable! Ditch the other heads, lemon Dando. “Paradise and catastrophe they go side by side. Does this mean we’re on shaky ground? I’m happy when you’re around. So let’s not put our feelings at bay, I love you in a different way.” Not profound, but prior to hearing the demos I didn’t think Dando was even capable of transmitting a coherent thought.
As an acoustic number, “It’s A Shame About Ray” has substance, and most importantly a melody. It wouldn’t have sold unplugged, but the demo is a much more enjoyable listen and it won’t tight your colon or set your teeth on edge. It’s a shame the final version was so radically different. The demo offers a “Ray” of hope.
Okay the acoustic approach doesn’t cure all ills. Witness the demo for “Rockin’ Stroll.” There’s some nice picking towards the end of the verses, but this still has the herky-jerky pace of the final version. Dando hits a grievous note at the end. “Smile at meeeeee.” Some “treasures” are better off remaining locked in the vault.
The demo for “My Drug Buddy” has a Darvon-killing pace, but there’s an attempt at harmony (even if it is overdubbed). But you really have to pucker up to sit through the strained vocals at the end.
Other notable early sketches include the demo for “Ceiling Fan In My Spoon,” which is in the early train wreck stage because Dando hasn’t figured out what to do with his voice. He’s sheepish, and then a moment later rides the scale as if it was a vocal rollercoaster. It ain’t pretty, but it’s still two tablespoons better than the end product.
DVD Two Weeks In Australia
Consumers get 45 minutes of videos, live performances and Dando playing the role of wounded rock star, flicking his long mane like an Indie Fabio as he preens for the camera. He’s a phony, but he’s a damned charming and photogenic phony. You want someone at home in front of a camera? How about Johnny Depp, who makes an appearance in the video for “It’s A Shame About Ray” doing his wounded rebel act? Using just his body language, Johnny pulls his punk persona off.
In other acts of mental cruelty, Dando tries to explain the band’s pilgrimage to Australia. A pregnant woman and a band named Smudge somehow played significant roles. In the video for “Being Around,” the prevailing wind coming off of the water keeps blowing Dando’s shoulder length hair in his face. Dando subtlety tries to fight his unmanageable mane off, leaning left, leaning right, and twisting his head, all to no avail. His Jennifer Anniston sheep dog locks also dominate “Alison’s Starting To Happen,” which is shot in concert. Since he’s scratching at his guitar, he can’t play with his hair, which completely obscures his face. If Dando’s arms weren’t moving, you wouldn’t know which way he was facing.
But Dando and his Lemons have more problems than his imitation of Rapunzel. The video for the intolerable “Mrs. Robinson” was shot on the water with a lot of concussion-promising low bridges. Watch your lemon, Evan. Dando avoids getting an abutment upside his head but can’t duck the fact that “Mrs. Robinson” is divorced from any semblance of melody.
“Hannah and Gabi” is beginning to sound better (third version’s a charm?), but the video suffers from the type of focus problems found in student films and has a bad case of “The Blair Witch” twitch. At least you get to see a lot of historical images of people connected to the band – well, the ones in focus, anyway.
Dando makes the most of his Indie Adonis image by singing “It’s About Time” solo. His preoccupation with sexy poses notwithstanding, Dando briefly remembers he’s a musician and gives a credible performance.
One thing for sure – Dando is photogenic enough to make the jump from singing to acting (his band mates can not make the same claim), although I doubt he’d be as good as Johnny Depp. As a musician, well, he’s still not as good as Johnny Depp.
Some recordings warrant excessive attention to detail and remastering so crisp you’d swear it was live. “There’s Something About Ray” doesn’t. But by adding demos and videos to an inferior work, the Heads have at least managed to make lemonade out of a lemon.