ERIC LINDEN’S ‘DESERT ISLAND ALBUM’
I REMEMBER exactly where I was standing the first time I heard ‘The Lemonheads.’
I was in my best friend’s living room, eight feet away from the TV. I remember we were waiting for our drummer to arrive so we could start band practice. We were watching an MTV special promoting The Coneheads movie. Every song they played had the word ‘heads’ in either the title or band name. Really ground-breaking television…
Then I heard a driving, distorted guitar, and the bouncing baseline. It was
Evan Dando and company bashing out Paul Simon’s intricate character study: The secrets in Mrs. Robinson’s pantry. The cupcakes. Joe DiMaggio. Coo, coo, ca-choo.
I was fourteen at the time. And this cover song left my head spinning.
Now, it is a very polarizing cover. Paul Simon hated it. But Art Garfunkel loved it. Evan Dando has trashed it. Repeatedly.
But me, I love it. And I love this album. So much so that if I get to take one album to a desert island it’s going to be The Lemonheads’ ‘It’s a Shame About Ray.’
I’ve thought about this question from LondonPeaky for a while now: What album would I want with me on a desert island? Did I want to pick an album that explored a wide variety of genres? Or runs the gamut of human emotions? Did I want an expansive masterpiece so I could find something new every time I listened?
But at the end of the day, I realized I wanted two things from my desert-island album:
1. It needs to inspire me to want to write my own music. This album is exciting and vulnerable and approachable.
2. It needs to make me feel good. Listening to this album feels like putting on an old jacket and going on a new adventure.
‘Ray’ is a pretty unique album. It clocks in at just over 30 minutes with several songs under two minutes long. It sits at the crossroads of folk punk, alternative rock, jangle pop, and Americana. This debuted in June of 1992, nine months after Grunge took over the airwaves.
It turns out that The Lemonheads have just reissued It’s a Shame About Ray for its 30th anniversary. They just announced they are headlining the SPIN showcase at SXSW before heading out on tour with Jawbreaker. It sounds like they plan to play the album in its entirety, so it seems like a perfect time to discuss the album track by track.
The album opens with a wildly descending guitar line of Rock and Stroll. It’s an exhilarating song from the perspective of a little kid being pushed around in a stroller. Dando captures the sensation perfectly. “Looking upward to the sky, moving forward all the time. / The sidewalk lines, “gadunk-gadunk-gadunk-gdai.” Talk about realistic detail.
Confetti opens up with Dando strumming on his vintage Gibson. It’s one of my favourite acoustic guitar tones of all time. Dando has said the song is about his parents getting a divorce. And there’s just such a juxtaposition between the congratulatory music marching forward and the lyrics: “He kinda shoulda sorta woulda loved her if he could’ve. / The story’s getting closer to the end.”
Dando wrote the title track with Tom Morgan of Smudge, but I hear so much of Juliana Hatfield here. Her moody bassline sets the tone for this sombre song and the guitar break that reminds me of Hatfield’s biggest hit, My Sister. I think it’s interesting that we hear Hatfield’s backing vocals for the first time on this album too. (Hatfield would later collaborate with Paul Westerberg who called the contrast of their voices “Sandpaper and Daffodil.” The vocal contrast is also a key ingredient in this album as well).
There’s an incredible use of tension and release in Rudderless as Evan contemplates addiction and suicide but says he finds “Hope in my Past.” The lyrics from the chorus are repeated in the bridge but the band takes a turbulent turn. The song also closes with Dando seemingly infinitely looping the phrase, “a ship without a rudder’s like a ship without a rudder’s like a…”
The next track is Drug Buddy. Recently, Manfred from the band Elephants and Stars tweeted that he remembered hearing that “Chris Colbourne of Buffalo Tom allegedly called Evan Dando and played him Kitchen Door because he felt it might sound too much like My Drug Buddy. At least I think that is how I remember the story…” There was so much incredible music coming out of Boston in the early 90s.
Honestly, I just love every song on this album. There are just no skips. The Turnpike Down has a brilliant refrain “butterscotch streetlamps mark my path down.” The album’s first theme is pretty clear because this is the fifth song in a row that reflects a feeling of aimlessness. Dando is sinking down into the comfortable butterscotch oblivion.
And that’s part of the reason it’s so jarring that Bit Part starts with a woman shouting “I just want a bit part in your life! I just. Want. A. Bit part. In your life.” It’s a wakeup call. It’s a direct demand. All of the movie imagery in this song makes it clear that there’s still an illusionary quality to life, but there’s also a longing for human connection. “I want a bit part in your life / A walk-on would be fine… Little more than a cameo / Nothing traumatic when I go.”
Allison’s Starting to Happen has always been a standout track for me. I have never been able to figure out why it wasn’t released as a single. The Spotify biography for The Lemonheads states “Though the Lemonheads were poised to become superstars, the band never quite found the right breakthrough single.” I’ve always thought they missed out on this one. Maybe they avoided it because Dando had “turned it into a love song” about his new bandmate’s girlfriend, Allison Galloway of Smudge.
Hannah & Gabi opens compellingly “Got me watching your eyes watching things go by outside
Out the window of a train…” Skunk Baxter plays slide guitar on this one track, which really isn’t my thing, but Dando brought his Graham Parker influences into some songs. Points the way to songs like Big Gay Heart.
Kitchen is yet another gem. It completely encapsulates the joy of those most wonderful nights with your friends staying up so late that you “repeat the same stories but of course enter different friends.” No matter how many times I’ve heard this album, that police siren still gets me. Every. Single. Time.
Ceiling Fan starts with dissonant chords and a droning vocal line, kind of a throwback to some of their earlier albums. In the context of this album, I’ve always thought it felt like the hangover after the wild night depicted in Kitchen. Both songs have those fun, retro backing vocals from Hatfield too.
The album originally concluded with a cover of Frank Mills from the musical Hair. I think people forget the influence that the 60s had on the 90s alternative rock scene. For example, Cobain howling, “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now” at the start of Territorial Pissings. But here Dando plays it straight and gives a really earnest version of the most innocent song inside a hippie musical.
Most fans know that Mrs. Robinson wasn’t even a part of the original release. By the time they recorded it Hatfield was enjoying her own success and Nic Dalton had replaced her as the bassist. This second cover song was hastily tagged on at the end of the album’ reissue when it started getting attention as a single. But for some reason, to me, it doesn’t seem out of place.
It might even be a fitting end to the album.
Connect with Eric Linden at https://ericlindenmusic.com/