June 2nd, 1992, Lemonheads released their fifth album, It’s A Shame About Ray through Atlantic Records. In the pantheon of great alternative rock albums released during the ’90s, the Lemonheads output is often disregarded or dismissed.
Despite the enormous success the band achieved, they were never quite accepted as serious contenders. Regarding It’s A Shame About Ray, maybe it was the perfect, hook-laden, sun kissed melodies that shunned some. Remember, the early ’90s were a time when dour introspection and bleak aggression were flavor of the day.
Maybe it was Evan Dando’s perfectly sculpted cheekbones, model good looks and loveable, bobble-head persona that caused many to write them off even before diving into the music. Either way, the Lemonheads spent all their time not giving a shit about all that, and instead, writing immaculate, memorable alternative rock songs.
Formed in Boston in 1986, the Lemonheads started life as a snotty punk band. Releasing their debut album “Hate Your Friends” on the legendary Taang Records in 1987. This was an exhilarating slice of hardcore punk. By album two, 1988’s “Creator” the band were already beginning to introduce more leftfield influences alongside the Husker Du worship. We now hear a smattering of acoustic guitars. Despite the cacophonous din, the band really knows their way around a melody, even at this early stage.
It was on the bands third and fourth albums where they found their sound. 1989’s “Lick” saw Evan Dando’s songwriting come to the fore. While still a raging punk blast, Lick demonstrates why the Lemonheads are such a vital band within the alternative rock and punk scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Their unique ability to meld Gram Parsons with Husker Du and wrap it up in a beautiful two and a half minute song was impressive.
1990’s “Lovey” is where it all truly came together, Dando took complete control of the artistic vision of the band, and full control of vocal duties too. On previous albums, lead vocals had been split with Ben Deily. Lovey is the Lemonheads first true masterpiece and their first for major label Atlantic Records.
The band had consistently released an album a year up to Lovey, from 1987 to 1990. But a two year gap separated Lovey and It’s A Shame About Ray. 1992 was a year of landmark releases, Alice In Chains – Dirt, Stone Temple Pilots – Core, Screaming Trees – Sweet Oblivion, L7 – Bricks Are Heavy and Nirvana’s Incesticide were just some of what poured from the fertile US alternative rock music scene.
Now, 31 years after its initial release, Dando’s slacker pop sounds almost Zen. It’s A Shame About Ray’s short songs seem concise and even disciplined. The album has aged extremely well, and plays as something much more complex and contradictory than it may have initally suggested during the heady days of the early ’90s. Filled to the brim with exuberant pop melancholy, it’s an irresistible treat.
Ray sounds nearly revelatory in its restlessness, mixing college pop with country flair and relocating Gus Van Sant’s Portland atmosphere to New England. The most beguiling aspect of the title track, one of Dando’s best compositions, is its impenetrability: It could be about anyone or pertain to almost any bad situation, and that ambiguity suggests some tragedy that can’t be named or faced. “The Turnpike Down” descends on a tripping hook that sounds altogether too bubbly for the material, while “Rockin Stroll”, sounds genuinely exciting. “Kitchen”, with its handclaps and effervescent jangle, rubs elbows with the tense chords and casually manic repetitions of “Rudderless”, where the acoustic guitar sounds spikier than the electric.
Before recording the album, Dando had toured Australia solo, opening for Fugazi. There he met Tom Morgan of the band Smudge. They became fast friends and instant collaborators (and are still to this day) Morgan is responsible for co-writing several of the band’s greatest songs with Dando. Ray was their first foray into co-writing and produced the title track and “Bit Part” from this album.
Dando recalls: When I got back to Los Angeles (from Australia) I decided I wanted to look after things myself, so I fired my management. I wanted to pick the band up, practice for an hour a day for a month and then make an album, which is exactly what we did. The song It’s a Shame About Ray was recorded very quickly, with Juliana Hatfield on bass and David Ryan playing drums. It was the era of: “Phew, we’ve got another one finished.”
The album’s title track was the first single, with its video garnering heavy rotation on MTV and featured a cameo by Johnny Depp. Dando explains how that came about “Winona Ryder was a Lemonheads fan and she made a tape of our songs for Johnny Depp. He liked the stuff and said to us: “Come and live in my house.” We didn’t exactly go and live in his house, but we made the video there, with Johnny in it. It was our first song to chart in the UK. Back then I was under a lot of pressure to deliver hits, but I still like the song. We never got the drum beat together or worked on the arrangement but sometimes the least thought out songs are the best.”
Ray’s subtle genius lies in a relatable caricature of the ennui and happy accidents of the era, and yet there’s also a distinct sense that it’s offering a glimpse into a deeply personal experience.
It’s layer after layer of brilliance, “Confetti,” rolls from the speakers with joyful abandon. The exuberant energy of “Bit Part in Your Life,” the love letter to substances “My Drug Buddy,” or the wonderful “Alison’s Starting to Happen,” where a girl finds herself as she discovers punk rock. These songs capture the laconic rhythms of suburbia, and his warm, friendly voice, which is offset by Juliana Hatfield’s harmonies, gives the songs an emotional resonance.
With “It’s a Shame About Ray,” It could be argued, Dando and his group might have peaked artistically. And though released only two years into the ’90s, both the album and its title track are among the best releases of the decade (if not beyond). It’s an exquisitely self-contained work of idleness, hunger, and pathos.
Since the record’s release, Dando has remained spacey and carefree despite the nihilism that plagued his Generation X cohorts. He never wanted to be a star. At times, it has seemed as though he barely wanted to be a professional musician. “It’s a Shame About Ray” eventually went gold, yet for a while it seemed as though Dando himself might not survive the decade. There are other great Lemonheads records, but It’s a Shame About Ray feels like a singular achievement. It perfectly captures a moment in time, something doomed to wilt because its colours were too bright to begin with. Essential