Monday, January 16, 2012

Lemonheads Laughing At The Cleaners

It’s almost hard to believe that enough time has passed for the Lemonheads to release a career retrospective. But think about it: the band was formed in 1986 by Evan Dando and two friends while they were still Boston high school students and plenty has happened in the span of 26 years.

All of it is punctuated with highs (literally) and lows (more than a few). Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners/The Best Of The Lemonheads is a 2-CD collection packed with 47 tracks. It serves as a career anthology of the unlikely indie band that could break into the mainstream with a catchy cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson. The year was 1992.

Never mind that Dando doesn’t like Simon & Garfunkel and refuses to play the song today. 

The anthology takes its name from the band’s edgy debut EP, which was released in 1986. Right from the start, the band was lauded as much for Dando’s boyish good looks as for their music, which was a big hit on the college rock circuit.

The Lemonheads quickly released three solid indie LPs on Boston’s Taang! Records, Hate Your Friends, Creator, and Lick before being scooped up by major label Atlantic in 1990. And in 1991, Dando met bassist Nic Dalton and songwriter Tom Morgan, who would play prominent roles on what is arguably the band’s finest release, It's A Shame About Ray.

Boston-based singer/guitarist Juliana Hatfield (Blake Babies) played bass and sang on the album, which fueled plenty of speculation about her and Dando’s relationship.

Were they or weren’t they? Did they or didn’t they? Had they or hadn’t they? 

Speculation wasn’t such a bad thing as it helped to generate interest in the band and also Hatfield’s other work. But media hype aside, the album delivered some tasty pop rock, including Confetti, My Drug Buddy, and Rudderless. Not long after, Into Your Arms was also embraced and the band performed on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

From the early to mid Nineties, Dando appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and battled a host of personal issues and a raging heroin and crack addiction. He was even booed at the Glastonbury Festival for turning up late and trying to play anyway.

Few bands hit highs and lows in such a short expanse of time. But in 1997, the Lemonheads mercifully disbanded. Only Atlantic would think to squeeze out every last drop with a premature Best Of The Lemonheads release in 1998. It seemed the final nail in an already tattered coffin.

Back then, people never really expected Dando to surface again. But in 2006, Dando/Lemonheads found a home with Vagrant, recording a self-titled album with notable guests such as Tom Morgan, bassist Josh Lattanzi, Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis and The Band's keyboardist extraordinaire Garth Hudson (playing on Black Gown and December). Two years later, It’s A Shame About Ray was reissued packed with raw tracks and demos. Varshons, a CD of cover songs, soon followed.

Dando seems to have mostly escaped his inner demons. 

No one can argue that Dando has talent. He is still an engaging performer. Watching him in 2011, especially at the Triple Door in Seattle, will make you forget he ever took time off.

Seeing him today might make you glad that he survived at one time being named to People’s 50 Most Beautiful People (seriously). Most that make the list and then hit rock bottom never survive with their looks intact.

Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners features songs from every incarnation of the band’s constantly revolving door, with the only common denominator being Dando himself. In addition to much of It’s A Shame About Ray, give a listen to Big Gay Heart, Rick James Style, Hospital, and Mallo Cup, and their punk cover of Suzanne Vega’s Luka.

All in all, this is a solid collection. The only drawback might be in the track order, which is quite random and not at all chronological.

Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners/Best Of Lemonheads Rolls In With 4.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While much of their young punk roots have mellowed over time, there are some real gems to be found in the new release. And whomever helped pick what to include did a great job avoiding any duds. The release also helps usher in a grueling tour schedule through the early part of 2012, when the band hits the Midwest, South and plenty of places in between.

Last November, the gritty Hotel Sessions was released early. It includes 14 songs that never made it an official Lemonheads album. In the meantime, Laughing All the Way To The Cleaners/Best Of Lemonheads can be found on Amazon. You can also find the occasional resale on Barnes & Noble. There are no plans for a digital release to date, but you can find the very rough Hotel Sessions (complete with background noise) on iTunes.
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