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Music: License to Confuse

Cleaned up and back to his roots, Evan Dando brings The Lemonheads into the 21st century

By Gregory Gaston · December 14th, 2007 · Music
  The Lemonheads' Evan Dando refuels on new CD.
Piper Ferguson

The Lemonheads' Evan Dando refuels on new CD.

One of the cooler things about Evan Dando is that he always keeps us guessing. Which incarnation is he pushing these days? His main Lemonhead gig or his solo projects? Who is he playing with now? What kind of condition is he in?

Starting way back in the late '80s with his Power Pop outfit The Lemonheads, Dando has ambled his way through the Indie scene more than a few times now. The Lemonheads were famous for rotating members, with Dando the only mainstay, and since their break-up in the late '90s, he released a solo record, Baby I'm Bored in 2003, as well as last year's strong return to form, The Lemonheads.

Of course, Dando is conscious of these changing perceptions. In my interview with him from NYC, he laughs about all his band changes: "Yeah, I like it that way -- keeps everybody confused."

His self-deprecating attitude toward success doubles as a defense mechanism. But then he has seen his reputation hyped and then trashed in equal measures through the years. Deserved or not, Dando has often been a lightening rod for the media's glare. For a period, he was the Indie-slacker poster boy. Whether it's because of his photogenic looks, his years of epic drug abuse or his disappearance from the Pop scene after ending The Lemonheads, he's drawn more than his fair share of criticism.

So it's good to see Dando reappearing with his facilities intact and a fine new record.

He's always had a knack for writing Pop hooks that dig under people's skin. His shaggy, appealing voice rides sway over the infectious melodies. From their breakthrough hit, It's a Shame About Ray in 1992, until their last release before the break, Car Button Cloth in 1996, the Lemonheads' specialty was Pop-craft with an edgy twang.

Referring to his latest music, Dando says, "I was writing a bunch of songs that sounded just like Lemonhead songs -- they didn't sound like my solo stuff. They didn't sound like the record before, which I really loved. I was writing much faster stuff for this one. I wanted a lot of crunch."

He found the right lineup to deliver that vision both on record and on stage. Supporting him on drums and bass are Bill Stevenson and Karl Alvarez, ex-members of Black Flag and The Descendents. This propulsive rhythm section gives his material a Punk feel with more sonic heft. But this sound returns him to his roots.

"What started it for me were bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, The Ramones, Husker Du and The Replacements," Dando says. "I started seeing bands in '83 -- before that I was holed up listening to Classical and Jazz music. I didn't listen to Rock -- thought it was inferior or something -- and then I heard Flipper and I realized I was stupid. I was an idealist and hadn't realized there was stuff out there right now I needed to listen to."

You can definitely hear some of those influences on The Lemonheads. From the start/stop dynamics of "Black Gown" to the tuneful thrash of "Steve's Boy," the record speeds by in a blur of high-intensity guitar artillery, featuring mainly Dando on guitar. Yet there are also a few ringers involved, too, specifically J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. fame and Garth Hudson from The Band.

"I met Mascis long ago," Dando says. "We were recording an album at the same time in the studio. I was with the Blake Babies then and Dinosaur Jr. were doing Bug. J. saw that I had ski tags on my jacket and asked if I wanted to go skiing way back in '87 or '88. So every year we try to get together somehow. His solos sound like they come from outer space."

With their shared Boston origins and Punk sensibilities, it makes sense that Dando and Mascis would hook up. But Hudson's involvement is more of a head-scratcher. The Band's classic Roots-laced sound does not even approximate the Lemonheads'. "Me, Garth, Steve Buscemi, John Cale and a bunch of people from SNL got invited to read Edgar Allan Poe poems at a benefit back in '98," Dando recalls. "That's how I met Garth. For me it was like a dream come true -- I still am a big Band fan. "

Dando still lives in NYC in the same apartment from which he witnessed the 9/11 disaster. Just like for the rest of America, it was this day that made him re-evaluate his life and make some changes -- including cleaning himself up.

"I'm looking at the hole right now -- two blocks away from us," Dando says of Ground Zero. "It was like having front-row tickets or something. On TV it actually looked real, but in person it didn't. All the money in the world can't buy you a near-death experience and that's what that felt like -- (we were) in a war zone. We thought we might die for sure."

Dando became re-engaged with his life and his music. Though normally not a prolific writer, he's already got enough songs for the next Lemonheads record and he's booked studio time for January.

Dando also sounds excited about the prospect of playing Bogart's again, probably his fifth time through the years, he figures.

"That's a good reason to keep a band going for a long time -- all these people say, 'I've never seen you play,' " Dando says. "Kids tell me that, so it's really fun to be able to play for them."

THE LEMONHEADS play Bogart's Friday with Racoon and The New Rivals. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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