There's something wistfully apt about the Lemonheads' relative obscurity. Despite a long career based on short songs, Evan Dando is neither a promising young artist anymore nor a reliably established alt act, but he still keeps chugging, unwilling to follow Buffalo Tom or Belly into that dark night. And yet, he hasn't reinvented himself as a bold businesswoman like old friend/muse Julianna Hatfield, nor has he graduated to éminence grise like fellow Bostonian J Mascis. Instead, Dando remains plain ol' Dando, occupying just enough of the public consciousness to qualify for a career but not enough to suggest a revival any time soon. Despite the recent reissue of It's a Shame About Ray, which showed just how sturdy his seemingly slight songs could be, his music is well served by his way-left-of-the-dial place in pop culture, as two new reissues reveal.
For most bands, The Hotel Sessions might seem like a curious release-- or at least curiously timed. Maybe 10 years late. It's a collection of demos recorded to a friend's Walkman at a hotel in Bondi Beach, Australia. Dando says he can't remember if he recorded it at the tail end of 1992 or in the early days of 1993, but that amnesia only adds to the record's stoner charm. It's just him and an acoustic guitar, although the tape hiss and pot smoke should get songwriting credits. You can almost hear the rumpled sheets and bad painting on the wall.
Most of these songs would eventually appear in polished studio form on Come on Feel the Lemonheads, which was their best-selling album but not their best and which has been dollar-bin fodder for the vast majority of its shelf life. Yet these tunes might actually have more charm in this woozy setting, as hits such as "Into Your Arms" sound sweeter and the line, "If I was a booger, would you blow your nose?" sounds bittersweeter (somehow). On the other hand, certain aspects of Dando's songwriting still sound mired in the period, as if preserved in alt amber: "Paid to Smile", he explains, was inspired by doing a string of radio performances with a hard-working and enthusiastic publicist. "Please don't hold the door, I can work the handle on any door," he sings before dismissing her efforts summarily: "You get paid to smile." How 90s is that?
Still, I'd much rather hear Dando's outtakes than, say, Rivers Cuomo's, if only because these pre-emo demos walk the line between introverted and extroverted rather than embrace self-absorption like a business plan. Somehow, Dando's nonchalance here-- his stoned cadences, fleeting hooks, loose-limbed guitar playing, and generally rumpled demeanor-- comes across as a weird but sincere gregariousness. That makes The Hotel Sessions an ideal Lemonheads retrospective, summing up the band's appeal more authoritatively than a conventional collection of hits ever could.
Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners is a conventional collection of hits. Named after the group's first release, when Dando was the drummer, this 2xCD, UK-only comp might be too generous at nearly 50 tracks. The familiar songs are all here: "It's a Shame About Ray" and "Mrs. Robinson" serve as disc openers, and "Into Your Arms" and "Frank Mills" aren't too deep in the tracklist. But so are never-charted singles, fan faves, and deep-album cuts such as "If I Could Talk I'd Tell You" and "Confetti", which testify to Dando's deceptively tight craftsmanship. On the other hand, what does it say about your catalog when goofy, one-off, one-listen experiments like "Rick James Style" and your unbearably ironic New Kids on the Block cover make your greatest hits?
Speaking of covers, Laughing is full of them. Dando has always cast a wide net, but the 90s being the 90s, there seems to be a cheeky "Step by Step" (NKOTB) for every sincere "Frank Mills" (Hair). Their take on Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" still sounds fairly redundant 20 years later, although the bong solo is a nice way to undercut the generational solemnity, and Randy Alvey & the Green Fuz's "Green Fuz" is certainly not the obvious choice from Varshons. On the other hand, Dando's version of Michael Nesmith's "Different Drum" exudes all the youthful self-determination that has given the song such a long life, and "Brass Buttons" and "Just Can't Take It Anymore" suggest he might have a full-length Gram Parsons covers album in him someday.
These covers are pleasant diversions, never definitive but not without a sense of self-critical commentary either. Dando is telling us how to listen to his music and how to triangulate his sound, which is more than Laughing does. By forgoing a chronological tracklist in favor of a jumble of tunes, the comp downplays any sense of transformation and growth, suggesting a flatness to Dando's craft. Rambunctious early tracks "Mallo Cup" and "Hate Your Friends" jostle against cleaner, more streamlined tunes "The Turnpike Down" and "Pittsburgh", but Laughing doesn't note the discrepancy, much less explain it. It's not that the Lemonheads demand a strict history, but there's no animating thesis here, no sense of the shape of Dando's improbable career. In short, there's no reason why we're listening to these particular songs in this particular order. All this comp tells us is that Dando wrote some great songs over the last 25 years, but we knew that already.
This definitive 2CD set delivers a very comprehensive overview of the contribution that Evan Dando and his various cohorts made to the alternative rock scene during their creative heyday in their early nineties. The bulk of the 47 tracks showcased here date from this highly productive period in Dando’s rather erratic career, including self-penned gems such as “It’s A Shame About Ray” and an eclectic assortment of cover versions led by Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” and the late great Kirsty MacColl’s “He’s On the Beach”.