Listening Booth: Lemonheads, “It’s a Shame About Ray,” Collector’s Edition

Written by Listening Booth, Music

It’s a Shame About Ray, the Lemonheads’ fifth album, was released on June 2, 1992. With sunny melodies and honeyed vocals from frontman Evan Dando and sit-in bassist Juliana Hatfield, it provided a perfect soundtrack for summer. When I heard last year that Rhino Records was preparing a “collector’s edition” reissue of the album, I was hoping it’d be released before the end of ’07 to coincide with Ray‘s 15th birthday. That didn’t happen, but when it finally came out on March 25 the timing worked out just fine — the perfect soundtrack for the summer of ’92 is now the perfect retro soundtrack for the spring of ’08. Ray‘s 12 songs shine brightest in warm weather.

That’s right — 12 songs, not 13. The original version of Ray, as mentioned in the collector’s edition’s liner notes, ended with an unassuming cover of “Frank Mills,” from the musical Hair, another in a long line of Lemonheads covers originally sung by women (“Luka,” “Strange,” “Different Drum,” “Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now”). But once the band’s cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” (recorded to promote a 25th-anniversary edition of The Graduate on home video) became a minor hit in the fall of ’92, Atlantic released a new version of Ray that November that included “Mrs. Robinson” as the 13th track. Rhino duplicates the track listing from that reissue here, but they do restore the full title of “My Drug Buddy,” which was chopped down to just “Buddy” in order to win over adolescent fans of “Mrs. Robinson” (and Dando’s good looks) whose moms might be monitoring their CD purchases.

It’s a Shame About Ray is the Lemonheads’ best album as well as their most consistent: Dando’s stream-of-consciousness approach actually flows for once rather than switching horses midstream to incorporate heavy-metal guitar solos, like the one heard on “(The) Door” (from 1990’s Lovey), or celebrity cameos, the most obvious example being “Rick James Style” (from 1993’s Come On Feel the Lemonheads). When the original version of Ray ends after the final notes of “Frank Mills” have died out, it’s like waking up from a late-afternoon dream, a feeling that’s helped along by the album’s brief 29-minute running time and the CD booklet’s mix-and-match approach to the lyrics, with one line from one song randomly followed by another line from another song, all in one long paragraph covering two pages. However, when “Frank Mills” ends and “Mrs. Robinson” immediately kicks in on the November ’92 reissue of Ray, it’s as if Cameron Crowe had faded to black after the final scene of Say Anything… and then 20th Century Fox decided the movie needed a final final scene of John Cusack winning a kickboxing tournament, with Ione Skye lovingly cheering him on.

Because of the extra track, Ray‘s spell is broken on the ’92 reissue. The mouth of the stream, so to speak, belongs to “Frank Mills,” not “Mrs. Robinson,” dammit! But in the age of iTunes playlists it isn’t difficult to edit the Lemonheads’ crowning achievement whichever way you want, of course.

The Lemonheads’ style was labeled “bubblegrunge” by some critics in the early ’90s, which felt like backlash against Dando’s teen-pinup appeal and interviews in which he came across as an airhead. (Some of his space-cadet behavior is on display in Two Weeks in Australia, the 45-minute tour documentary from 1993 that’s included as a bonus DVD with the collector’s edition of Ray.) Were these critics just too annoyed with Dando’s cheekbones and casual drug use to call the Lemonheads’ music power pop, which they usually adore? Of course, it’s not just power pop — it also has elements of postpunk and alt-pop and jangle pop and pop-folk and country rock. Or whatever, dude. (Yep, it has elements of slacker rock too!)

The bottom line is that it all gelled spectacularly in ’92, and it still works 16 years later. Dando has always known how to put across an instantly catchy melody and simple, unpretentious lyrics in three minutes or less. His songs are never incomplete — he knows what he wants to say and says it while leaving you wanting more. With lyrics like “I understand myself / Phony mystery” (from “Ceiling Fan in My Spoon,” the album’s most aggressive song), “He kinda shoulda sorta woulda loved her if he coulda / He’d rather be alone than pretend” (from “Confetti,” written about the divorce of Dando’s parents), and “I’m too much with myself / I wanna be someone else” (from “My Drug Buddy”), he touches upon universal truths with a plainspoken directness that speaks volumes. Even the infant empowerment anthem “Rockin Stroll,” which kicks off Ray, has a classic line for young and old alike: “I’m still aware of little but I’m gonna try.”

Dando also has the good sense and pop smarts to cover Australian band Godstar’s “Kitchen,” written by future Lemonhead Nic Dalton (he joined in time for the Ray tour; that’s him playing bass on “Mrs. Robinson”). Godstar’s version is pleasant but hard to remember five minutes after you’ve heard it, whereas the Lemonheads’ cover turns it into one of the best pop songs of the ’90s, with hand claps, a wailing siren in the background, and “bop-bop-ba-ooooh” backing vocals. Dalton’s lyrics capture young love exquisitely: “We’ll repeat the same stories / But of course never in front of friends.” Why this wasn’t chosen as a single, I have no idea.

In addition to the Two Weeks in Australia DVD, a somewhat interesting artifact from the peak of the Lemonheads’ popularity that spends most of its time showing off their Atlantic-era music videos (Lovey‘s “Half the Time” is the most interesting one), the collector’s edition of Ray also contains the B-side “Shaky Ground,” written as a duet but sung completely by Dando (maybe Hatfield was busy) with some minimal stereo separation to separate the two “characters.” There are also nine previously unreleased demos that were recorded in November of ’91 with just Dando’s guitar and voice and some backing vocals from Hatfield on “My Drug Buddy” and “Bit Part.” Those two songs are the most striking in raw demo form — on “My Drug Buddy,” Dando’s relaxed delivery and multitracked vocals make the song sound almost like a blissed-out group chant, and on “Bit Part,” what sounds like a door unexpectedly slamming shut in the background provides an ironic exclamation point scribbled onto the end of the movie-lingo lyrics.

All nine demos prove how solidly constructed Ray‘s songs were to begin with (though I do prefer “Ceiling Fan in My Spoon’s” ramped-up album version, propelled forward by drummer David Ryan, compared to its easygoing demo). Dando may have come across as flippant and self-destructive in interviews back in the ’90s, but it’s clear he’s a pop craftsman to the core. If you’re a Lemonheads fan, keep your fingers crossed that Rhino will issue deluxe versions of the band’s other releases for Atlantic: the aforementioned Lovey and Come On Feel the Lemonheads, and the one that got me hooked in the first place, 1996’s Car Button Cloth.

Confetti
Kitchen
My Drug Buddy [1991 Demo]

The collector’s edition of It’s a Shame About Ray can be purchased at Rhino.com. And for more information about the Lemonheads, don’t visit your local library — go here and here instead. (Yep, a shameless plug. Who’s gonna stop me?)