Thursday, December 1, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 7: The (or the) Lemonheads

Don't get it either...

According to “my sources,” The Lemonheads cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” “got them the most exposure they had had.” (Hat tip, though, for the quick reference to Madonna's "Like a Virgin.") And that’s a goddamn shame, not least because it’s not even their best cover. Here, I’m willing to entertain a debate: I’m partial to their “Amazing Grace,” but I’m sure some people out there would vouch for “My Name Is Luka.” That last one is a rare case where a male voice works better…something about vulnerability and the way men tend to suppress it…

Apart from knowing it happened at some point during high school, I can’t really say when I first heard the Lemonheads - but it happened before they, or rather he, added the definite article to the band’s name. And, “he” means the guy you’re likely to know, if you know The Lemonheads at all, Evan Dando.

However and whenever it happened, the Lemonheads put out two of my all-time favorite albums, Hate Your Friends and Creator. I played both into the fucking ground for years upon years and they somehow still make a steady appearance in my musical rotation to this day. One detail makes that doubly weird, or arguably embarrassing: the themes they address on both albums, even the way they approach to music, is decidedly adolescent – or, generously, “young adult.” Then again, that might be shortchanging just how cleanly they hit a couple major themes – among them, frustration in relationships, heartbreak, anger…I guess it’s mostly just frustration, really, a mindset that I don’t know that I’ve ever let go of. I’m not even sure that I’m capable of letting go of it. Put another way, I can listen to “Fucked Up” over and over again and still feel every word. I mean, who can’t connect to the idea of being reminded again and again and again of something that you already know in your bones – that, yes, I fucked up. And I’m real sorry.

So, yeah, both Hate Your Friends and Creator loom large in my pantheon of albums – they live in Arcadia, even Mount Olympus. They put out a couple albums after that – Lick, among them, which is where you find their cover of "Luka" – and Lick was fine, even as I had no idea at the time about where the band was when they released it (e.g, nowhere good personally, but improving professionally). Lovey came after that, and, bluntly, I’m not sure I even remember that one coming out. The only album after Lick that I remember coming out was It’s a Shame About Ray. That’s where they put “Mrs. Robinson,” along with the title track, but my opinion on it at the time of its release can best be summed up in the way I renamed it: I called it “It’s a Shame About The Lemonheads.” And I meant it.

A lot went into that disdain, some of it valid, but some of it grew from personal hang-ups. Kids in their late teens and early 20s, especially men (from what I understand), have a tendency to hold very specific opinions very strongly. My chief hang-up came with tempo: if a song failed to keep a certain tempo and attitude (fast and angry), it felt like someone telling me to slow down when all I wanted to do was run headlong into a wall as fast as I could. That was part of it – and that mattered more than it does now, certainly – but something else happened to, something I neither understood nor appreciated at the time: by the time Lick came out, Ben Deily had already left the band (apparently), and that was a bigger deal than I knew back then.

How ignorant was I? I thought Ben Deily was Jesse Peretz. So, yeah, pretty ignorant, even if it came from a simple game of telephone. I’ll be working backwards from here…bear with me.

Before writing this, I went back to listen to The Lemonheads’ later works, from Lovey to It’s a Shame About Ray to Come on Feel The Lemonheads. A couple songs I actually remember hearing – e.g. “Into Your Arms” (Come on Feel), “Brass Buttons” (Lovey), and, my personal favorite from the post-Deily era, “Confetti” (It’s a Shame) – but, even now, nothing stands out for me quite like Dando’s imprint on the band. The shift felt clearest on It’s a Shame, where I hear what I call the sound that followed grunge in the early 90s – “jangly alternative” (to throw a feeble descriptor at it) - really took hold. It borrowed a lot of the same tropes (e.g. the “breakdown,” which is all over “Alison’s Starting to Happen”), but the sound cut out distortion and eschewed all but the gentlest of effects pedals (well, so far as I know; again, I’m closer to idiot than expert on this stuff). If I had to pick a song from any of the albums that captures the post-Deily vibe of The Lemonheads, I’d go with “Kitchen,” (also, very 90s) an actually sweet song, but one that also leaned into the poppy feel that, 1) the band adopted, and 2) that turned me the fuck off.

All the same, getting back to these songs with older ears wasn’t a waste of time by any stretch, not now that I’m a couple decades past the narrow definition of music the defined my young, angry years. I struggled through Lovey even this time around, but “Ride With Me” feels like a good song (though, on the other side of the coin, “Left for Dead” should not exist, at least not while “Clang Bang Clang” (Creator) exists (the little wrinkle in the intro didn't make the video, but tell me the audio ain't better), while “Paid to Smile” (Come on Feel) presents as a clever piece that feels as valid today as it did back then. On the plus side, I think Dando quietly reconnected with what made the Lemonheads great here and there on Come on Feel the Lemonheads in songs like “Being Around” and “Big Gay Heart” (and with the bonus country vibe on both!). It’s the insouciance I’m after, the subtle little “fuck it” playfully written into those songs.

Also, the demos on the latter half of the remastered It’s a Shame About Ray finds some unspoken way to get to what, in my mind, some of those songs tried to communicate (see? title track). One gains a lot by getting some affectations the fuck out of the way sometimes…

For all that, the one thing the Lemonheads lost that they couldn’t replace was Ben Deily. I love me some of the songs Dando sang (and, if we’re keeping with Beatles Rules, presumably wrote) – e.g. “Hate Your Friends,” “Mallo Cup,” “Your Home Is Where Your Happy,” (Side NOTE: Manson cover?!) “Don’t Tell Yourself,” all of which are great, but also “Belt” and “Die Right Now,” (I mean, who hasn't been there?) which make me want to smash fences (and smile through the rampage) to this very day – but Deily’s best songs somehow still feel timeless. Deily was the heart of the band, maybe even its brain. I’ll always feel like “Amazing Grace” and “Fucked Up” are his, but his best songs are all over Creator: “Sunday,” “Come to the Window,” and “Falling” make it feel like some dimension was lost when he left. Of all the songs in the Lemonheads oeuvre, nothing means more to me than “Postcard,” which, for all the specifics, gets at themes that never die: the fragility of any relationship and how sickeningly fucking hard it is to say goodbye to anyone you really love. Reminds me of every stupid thing I’ve ever said to any girl I’ve ever lost; breaks my heart to this day, and with every detail.

Here’s another question for the ages: why did the Lemonheads lose the “rock” edge when Deily left. That goes double with the kinds of songs that made their way onto Creator. There was always a kind of rawness to what Deily wrote; he exposed his heart, whereas, so long as they were together, Dando seemed more comfortable ripping open his spleen. It was a great partnership while it lasted. Didn’t last long, though, and maybe that’s for the best. Too many bands go stale, so god bless the ones who never had a chance to.

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