espite being a tacit advertisement for the adoption of narcotic dependency as lifestyle, The Lemonheads’ fourth album, It’s a Shame About Ray, is one of the most blissful records in pop’s short history: a half-hour of winsome power-pop that captured in aspic the effervescent joy of a perfect summer’s day. Sadly, the key line on this eighth Lemonheads record is, “With a little bit of common sense / You can lose a lot of innocence.” Whilst in that earlier life front man Evan Dando seemed eternally youthful, he now stands on the edge of middle age: a little older, a little wiser, a little less likeable.
Since the early 90s, The Lemonheads has been a name for Dando and a revolving cast of collaborators; ten years after laying the name to rest with Car Button Cloth, the nucleus of this revived edition of the band is ex-Descendents players Bill Stevenson and Karl Alvarez, with J Mascis, The Band’s Garth Hudson and It’s a Shame-era collaborator Tom Morgan all making cameo appearances. Their aim? As Dando tells it, it was to make a “rock” album. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really play to his strengths. It was the sun-kissed pop of It’s a Shame, not the band’s formative Hüsker Dü imitations, that drew fans in—the opiated contentment of tracks like “My Drug Buddy” and “Confetti” were a beatific alternative to the lazy nihilism of grunge.
So instead of letting tunes fly, turgid distortion keeps things resolutely earth bound; gnarly guitars eat up Dando’s voice, robbing songs of much of their character. “Let’s Just Laugh” encapsulates the frustrations of the record: a sweet chorus is sandbagged by plodding verses and a feeble “freak-out” at the close. On nearly every song a sweet slither of a tune peeks frustratingly through the morass, but rarely does something impress wholly. The upbeat likes of “Poughkeepsie” and “Black Gown” bounce along with some of the guileless charm of old, yet most of the time Dando is incapable of writing a decent verse to frame his choruses.
The only track to vary the songwriting template is also the nadir. “Baby’s Home” is a Dylanesque murder ballad in which the protagonist blows apart his cheating wife with a shotgun. (Its unsightly undercurrent of misogyny sits uneasily with Dando’s laid-back persona.) Admittedly, the song was written by Morgan but, like a lot here, it points to the creeping conservatism of the alt. rock generation—and while it’s got nothing on recent comments made by fellow 90s indie stalwart Stephen Malkmus, it’s rather dispiriting.
The Lemonheads is full of, for better or worse, comfort music. It radiates a blunted nostalgic glow that seeps through the frequent musical languor. It’s only occasionally that you’re reminded that this is the same person who sang “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You” and “Into Your Arms” and you can reconnect to that short burst of optimism that greeted the final decade of the 20th century. For a musical post-mortem of the eventual failure of the Clinton generation, The National’s Alligator is peerless. For a portrait of slackers keeping on, The Lemonheads will do. It’s a shame, but would you really expect it any other way?