The Lemonheads’ new album, Varshons (The End Records), kicks off with Gram Parsons’s “I Just Can’t Take It Anymore,” in which the resigned, lovelorn protagonist declares, “Well, we could’ve done a lot / We certainly did not / So I’ll try to do the things I did before.” In his own way, Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando — who is the Lemonheads, for all intents and purposes — is declaring the same: He’s only released two studio albums of original material in the past decade. And though his band has recorded many covers over the years, starting in 1986 with Proud Scum’s “I Am a Rabbit” and including Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” along the way, Varshons is the revolving-door band’s first all-covers LP. As Dando recently told the Australian magazine Time Off, “I refuse to [write songs] on purpose. I’m always playing a guitar, but I refuse to go ‘OK, I’m going to write a fucking song today even if it sucks.'”
Fair enough. So until the next album of Lemonheads or Dando-gone-solo originals sees the light of day, we have this collection of 11 songs that Varshons producer Gibby Haynes, otherwise known as the leader of the Butthole Surfers, has put on mix tapes for Dando over the years.
Dando’s stated goal was for Varshons to have the grab-bag variety of a mix tape, which it achieves in fits and starts, but most of his interpretations here are filtered through his admiration for Gram Parsons and the late musician’s country-rock sensibilities. (The word “versions,” if said with an English accent, will apparently get you “varshons,” but you can also reach that destination by way of a southern twang.)
Hearing Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die” (“His name is codeine / And he’s the nicest thing I’ve seen / Together we’re gonna wait around to die”) in this context isn’t a surprise, but Wire’s “Fragile” and GG Allin’s “Layin’ Up With Linda” aren’t the most likely candidates for steel-guitar revisionism. Punk-rock outlaw Allin was known for his deeply misogynistic lyrics, but Dando makes the black comedy of “Linda” palatable, providing just the right amount of sociopathic pouting to lines like “One day I just got bored and killed her / She used to be fun.” It’s also the third murder ballad by the Lemonheads in as many albums, following Car Button Cloth‘s “Knoxville Girl” (1996) and The Lemonheads‘ “Baby’s Home” (2006).
The first half of Varshons is the strongest, but Amsterdam-based duo Arling & Cameron’s “Dirty Robot” provides an excellent beginning for “side two” of this mix. Model Kate Moss, an old friend of Dando’s, sings lead on the hot-pink electro track, with a vocoder-ized Dando chiming in as the title ‘droid. It’s the WTF moment every good mix tape needs, reminiscent of the Lemonheads’ cover of New Kids on the Block’s “Step by Step” on their 1991 Favorite Spanish Dishes EP. In general, Varshons could use more curveballs like “Dirty Robot.”
Another famous female showing a different “varshon” of herself is actress Liv Tyler, who costarred with Dando in the 1995 film Heavy and joins him here for a duet of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” Neither Moss nor Tyler sounds like she could belt one out if required, but their celebrity cameos get the job done. More impressive is singer Tricia Scotti, who plays Emmylou Harris to Dando’s Parsons on “I Just Can’t Take It Anymore.”
Mix makers often include a no-seriously-this-song-is-awesome-and-I-don’t-mean-that-in-an-“ironic”-way track; Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” written by 4 Non Blondes’ Linda Perry, fits the bill on Varshons. It’s the final number, and a nice way for Dando to answer any naysayers who wrote him off in the early ’90s as he was turned into a teen-idol pinup by magazines hungry for an “alterna-hunk.”
“I am beautiful, no matter what they say / Words can’t bring me down,” he croons, and just as Aguilera proved herself to be more than a teen-pop tart earlier this decade, Dando has shown time and again that he’s much more than a pretty face. His voice isn’t as agile as it used to be, but it’s still one of the best in pop music, able to excavate and illuminate melodies that lesser singers might otherwise obscure. As he’s gotten older, Dando’s vocals have become wiser — he’s seen it all, yet he remains curious about where life, and music, will take him next.
Varshons is available at Amazon.com.