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The Lemonheads Live The Life

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Saturday, 30 May 2009

Over the last few years, both musicians and the publicity companies with which they work have gone to great lengths to recast the popular image of the average rock star. The portrait of a musician as a decadent, aloof and untouchable aesthete has definitely fallen out of fashion as a series of working class heroes (scan Tim Armstrong of Rancid, James Jackson Toth of Wooden Wand, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine or Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem for samples) have stepped forward to fill the void and thus redefined the public picture of the professional musician as one that far more closely resembles an 'everyman.' They don't rest on laurels or rely on reputations, and this idea and image was summed up by Chuck D perfectly when, in Cypress Hill's anthem “Rock Superstar,” he stated flat out, “It's a fun job, but it's still a job.”  Declarations like that, combined with the average fan's ability to get closer to the objects of their admiration than ever before courtesy of the internet, have had are very heartening – they illustrate that making art is still a play to make a living – but it's had a mixed effect on the nature of rock n' roll: on one hand, it has been good for bands as they reach a better connection with their fans but, by the same token, that connection has had a very humanizing and demystifying effect;  musicians got exactly what they wanted when they deliberately faded the hero worship a bit which is both a benefit to them (there are fewer stalkers), but it has also been a detriment as the number of court cases has increased, presumably because artists are not viewed as untouchable anymore by the general public.

Even so, there are some musicians that just seem as if they're from another world. Without trying to embark upon a myth-making exercise, speaking to Evan Dando – lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for The Lemonheads – is a remarkable and surreal experience because his relaxed demeanor sits in perfect contrast with the events and characters that surround him on a daily basis. Some of the biggest and/or most colorful celebrities in the world number among Dando's friends (ask Dinosaur Jr. drummer and Lemonheads alumnus  Emerson “Murph” Murphy about his tenure in the latter band, and he'll admonish you with stories of supermodels flocking to Dando en masse backstage after concerts) and, as a result, appear in many of the stories that the singer tells in addition to appearing on many of his albums – both solo and with The Lemonheads. For other people in the music industry, such a who's who list of talent like the one which tends to appear in a conversation with Dando would come off as self-serving name dropping but, in this context, they're nothing more than genuine friends and/or people goodly enough to contribute a performance to this track or that endeavour upon the singer's request. It sounds funny to say it, but when you hang out with legends as Dando does, any story you might tell tends to sound fantastic whether it is genuinely so or not.

In the case of The Lemonheads' newest work, Varshons, the stargazing begins very literally at the beginning. “The Lemonheads have always had a few covers in reserve to pull out during concerts and, of course, a couple have made it onto albums and things, but there was a little more to this than just that,” admits Dando as he begins outlining how Varshons came together. “Gibby Haynes [lead singer for the Butthole Surfers –ed] and I had been tossing the idea of working together on some kind of album for a while and when the idea for Varshons started to come together, he was the perfect fit in my mind. I've been really lucky to work with a lot of the people I've worked with over the years and Gibby is definitely one of those people. Growing up, the Butthole Surfers were sort of a special band for me and a lot of my friends; like you know how there are kids that used to freak out and follow the Grateful Dead? The Surfers were sort of a band like that – [laughing] they were the Grateful Dead for people that didn't like the Grateful Dead. Gibby had everything to do with what ultimately went on the album. He's a good friend of mine and has always had this gift for putting mix tapes together; he pulls songs from all over the place – stuff you might know as well as stuff you probably don't – and assembles these great little sets that are really impressive. After we decided to do a whole album of covers and Gibby got involved, there ended up only being a few that I picked out – the rest were all Gibby. He picked these songs and would show them to me, and then I'd decide how they could work.”

“There was another reason I did it too,” continues the singer, suddenly sounding very sheepish. “I'm really excited about this set, and a lot of that has to do with the artwork. The record cover’s amazing, I gotta say. That was, like, the whole reason for the album. I bought this painting by Mark Dagley that I couldn’t really afford and was like, 'Shit, what do I do? What do I do?’ Then I had a eureka moment and thought that I could diffuse cost by using the art as the cover so that's where it started and things just started to line up.”

Whether or not the impetus for Varshons involved stellar acts of serendipity or simply opportunistic art-making, it doesn't take away from the results. Varshons pulls from every imaginable corner of the pop pantheon (including some of the darkest, most often-forgotten corners) and, while print doesn't do the effect justice, actually assembles a fairly remarkable portrait of the band, their possible influences and what sorts of music and bands inspire them. The songs are a real surprise as precisely none of the selections are obvious or expected (nothing so contrived as “Mrs. Robinson” here), but maybe that's part of the point; Dando drags his band through a strange environment that finds Gram Parsons backed by GG Allin, Christina Aguilera and Leonard Cohen but, at every turn, they absorb the content, strip all the gloss – both that of the original recordings as well as that usually attached to a Lemonheads release – from the songs and make them their own by recasting each as a faux vintage alt-rock staple (the reworking of GG Allin's “Layin' Up With Linda” is easily the greatest shock as Dando puts the kibosh on the auteur's vaunted mania and actually manages to make the song sound a bit romantic) that seems as if their inclusion is nothing more than the height of common sense. Every step of the way, the band sets the songs up as completely unaffected and lacking in novel tones – they simply get done The Lemonheads' way. “We know how to sound like other bands, but we just wanted to do them our own way and, while they're somebody else's material, treat them with the same care we would our own,” jokes Dando when conversation turns to the methodology behind Varshons. "We did have a little assistance too; Liv Tyler did the duet with me on “That's No Way To Say Goodbye” and Kate Moss helped out by doing some vocals on our rendition of “Dirty Robot.” It all worked out really, really well; I thought at the beginning that it might be a bit of a risk, but it turned out to be a really solid experience. It's funny now though because the album has actually been done now for over a year – we had some trouble trying to figure out what was going on with our label situation and that took a while and stalled putting the album out – but I'm glad that The End picked it up and has decided to finally release it.”

While Varshons is only now finally going to see the light of day [the album will be released on June 23, 2009 –ed], according to Dando, it isn't as if he sat on his thumbs and put everything else on pause in wait for something to happen – he's continued working and it's entirely possible that there may be other releases that bear his name coming out this year. “A lot of the stuff  that I'd like to do is still very up in the air so it's going to come down to where everything is and what feels right after we finish this tour behind Varshons, but I'm still working on a couple of things,” muses the singer on what the remainder of the year might hold. “I've never beeen particularly interested in putting out a children's record or anything like that, but I've been talking with some people about working on a children's book which is coming together nicely and, before the end of the year, I want to get started on another album – I've been writing quite a bit toward something like that – but I haven't decided if it's going to be a Lemonheads album or a solo one yet. As I go through, plans might change and I'm still going back and forth on what I'm going to do next, but I like the idea of keeping my options open.”

Artist:

The Lemonheads official website

Lemonheads/Evan Dando UK site

The Lemonheads' myspace

Album:

Varshons
comes out on June 23, 2009 on The End Records. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

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