Reviews of It's A Shame About Ray
Mike Daly - East Coast Rocker 27th May 1992
Record Of The Week
At this juncture in the long history of rock, we've again reached that part of the cycle where many artists are taking a stripped-down approach to recording and performing. Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend is the most successful recent example of the trend. Today, for the most part, if an artist's lyrics are worth hearing, their recordings are very basic; the bigger the production, it seems, the less the artist has to say.
The timing of the trend couldn't be better for the Lemonheads, especially considering that they're no longer a band at all. Evan Dando is the sole constant member of a group that began six years ago, when four recent high-school grads pooled their fundage and put out their own EP. Over the course of four indie albums and two major-label releases, the core lineup whithered until only Dando was left.
For lt's A Shame About Ray, the chief Lemonhead is joined by a drummer David Ryan, who played on the Atlantic debut, Lovey, and bassist/vocalist Juliana Hatfield, now on an indefinite solo hiatus from the Blake Babies. Guest stars include legendary guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, keyboardist Barry Goldberg, and rock'n'roll twin Gunnar Nelson (?!). The trio ensures a stripped-down sound, but, through the frequent use of acoustic guitars and other low-volume instrumentation, it's more apt to compare It's A Shame About Ray to the Replacements' Don't Tell A Soul than to Sweet's Girlfriend.
The leadoff cut, a hyperactive jolt called "Rockin Stroll," is about as heavy as the record gets, thanks to a layer of super-distorto guitar. Its companion piece, "Confetti," is a tune about romantic paralysis that by all rights, should be a new pop classic.
By now, Dando's vocal style - a hybrid of Elvis Costello, Paul Westerberg and Joey Ramone - has become firmly established. The pure-pop title track tells an amhigous story about a guv who meets an unspeakable, inexplicable end. Hatfield's second vocal highlights the angst-ridden "Rudderless.'' while her simple but unconventional bassline buoys "Turnpike Down." A male/female acquaintanceship based on substance abuse is at the center of the midtempo "My Drug Buddy."
In "Bit Part," Dando uses movie lingo to propose a casual relationship. Friendship becomes infatuation in "Alison's Starting To Happen" ("to me" is the song's marvelous hook). Baxter's slide work stands out on the countrified "Hannah & Gabi." "'The Kitchen" (written by Nic Dalton) is the setting for the igniting of a romantic spark. According to Dando, the edgy, urgent "Ceiling Fan In My Spoon- is about "being in a bad mood and going to a restaurant and you see the ceiling fan in your spoon" (o-kay...). The LP closes with an acoustic reading of "Frank Mills," an odd narrative from the musical, Hair.
Besides its appealing no-frills sound and Dando's off-center handling of standard subject matter, It's A Shame About Ray' is also blissfully short - just over a half hour. In this case, as in most, less is definitely more. Let's hope this is the beginning of yet another trend.
Matt Ashare - Boston Phoenix 5th June 1992
It's taken five records and six long years of growing up in public for Evan Dando to come into his own as a songwriter. But with his band Lemonheads' new release, It's a Shame About Ray (Atlantic), he's settled into a comfortable style and come across with his most consistent and accessible album. Instead of trying to cover the wide range of musical styles - from hard-metal-edged grunge to folky acoustic rock - that made the last two Lemonheads releases uneven at best, Dando focused on developing the simple-yet-gutsy melodic guitar rock that's been his strength since 1988's Creator.
The songs on It's a Shame About Ray range from the straightforward power-pop hooks of the title track and first single to the revved-up quirkiness of "Ceiling Fan in My Spoon" without straying too far from the basic formula of strummed acoustic guitar mixed with some Gibson SG grit over a solid rhythm section. Dando does stray into a bit of countrified rock for "Hannah & Gabi," and he sings "Frank Mills" (a song from the Broadway production of Hair) against a simple acoustic-guitar background. But there are none of the half-hearted excursions into heavy-metal antics that marred Lick (1989) and, to a lesser extent, Lovey (1990).
Darlings of the Boston scene, Lemonheads have evolved into whatever group Dando has assembled to record and/or tour. Before this album, the band went through yet another line-up change: original bassist Jesse Peretz departed, leaving Dando as the only original member, though drummer Dave Ryan has now been on board for three and a half years. Juliana Hatfield, a longtime friend of Dando's who recently left the Blake Babies to pursue her own solo career, filled in on bass for Ray and added some pleasant background vocals on a few tunes, most notably "My Drug Buddy" and "Bit Part," which opens with Hatfield screaming "I just want a bit part in your life." (When Lemonheads start touring this fall, Peretz will be replaced by Nic Dalton, a bassist from Australia who wrote "Kitchen" for Ray.)
Locale as well as personnel seems to have affected the new album. Dando did much of the writing in Australia and the recording in LA, which seems to have freed him from the obligation to live up to the band's Boston-based punk-rock roots.
"I'd be lost without Australia," he concedes. "The people I met there got me excited about music again, and I wrote the whole record on my acoustic guitar while I was hanging out down there." Dando also hooked up with a songwriting partner Down Under, Tom Morgan (from a Sydney band called Smudge), who helped pen two of the songs for Ray and is already working with Dando on songs for the next sessions.
You can also hear the difference in the production, which was all done at LA's Cherokee Studios by the Robb Brothers, a threesome of siblings who had a band called the Robbs in the '60s. Instead of playing down the acoustic poppy side of Dando's music, or burying it in studio gloss, the Robb Brothers let Dando's songs speak for themselves.
LA allowed Lemonheads a chance to fill out their sound instrumentally with such non-punk devices as keyboards and pedal steel guitar. As Dando puts it, "It's that LA thing. I wanted Sneaky Pete from the Flying Burrito Brothers to play pedal steel, but they couldn't find him, so they got Skunk Baxter from the Doobie Brothers, and they also got Barry Goldberg, the guy that played with Dylan a lot, to come down and play some organ."
But by far the strangest meeting of minds that took place at the studio sessions came when Dando ran into Gunnar Nelson (of Nelson) and persuaded him to lay down some background vocal tracks on "Alison's Starting To Happen." "He was hanging out in the studio all the time and I had my guitar, so we played songs and hung out. He's a really nice guy, so I asked him to do some singing and he did the oooh-weees on `Alison's Starting To Happen' and this big Boston and Sweet vocal flourish at the end. That's what's cool about recording in LA: all these music people are there all the time. Urge Overkill were also hanging out at the studio, so I had Nate [Kato] sing the backgrounds on `Ceiling Fan in My Spoon.'"
If all this talk of LA has you thinking that Lemonheads have sold out their punk roots, then you might miss some of the old guitar grunge. But if, like me, you always found the poppy, melodic side of the band more convincing, It's a Shame About Ray will be a welcome surprise. Dando's take on it is plain. "I could never see this record as a sellout because it's real simple songs. It's just what I want to do. I can't worry about any of that stuff anyway."
Sally Margaret Joy - Melody Maker 27th June 1992
What do the Lemonheads want from you? Unlike Nirvana, who want to raise your awareness, or Buffalo Tom, who want you to feel the hurt, Lemonheads simply want you to witness their existence before they go out like a spark. It's the whole raison d'etre of pop and it ensures that these 12 windows in on what seems to be a gorgeously romantic American existence (turnpikes, hanging out with Friends outside the Waverley Hotel, hoedown rhythms and five-buck guitar solos) will be accessible to even the staunchest of Englanders. After about 10 listens at 98 decibels in an open-topped Chevy, that is.
If your ears are tuned in to the whole American thang then the songs are fantastically immediate. "Rudderless" swallows your heart whole into its warm mouth. It aches with the impossible. The melancholy, loneliness and langour of adolescence seem to resonate in the thrum of acoustic guitar. Evan Dando has perfected the sound of teenage longing. Or maybe it's the sound of the desire to stay innocent, and therefore young, and therefore immortal. Whatever it is, he grounds it in just the right amount of detail for it to be sensed but not completely understood.
'My Drug Buddy' trails a rapturous surge of love (or plain old hormones, depending what mood you're in) on a stroll from the candy store to the phone booth. You're there. You can feel the warmth of the pavement coming up through your shoes. You can feel it turn cold as the sun falls behind the buildings. You are not really stuck in your bedsit under the flyover. You cannot ask for more.
Brace yourselves, it's time for a fact. Evan Dando is the Lemonhead(s). The others left somewhere between 89's "Lick" and 1990's 'Lovey' because Dando wanted to play everything himself. Unless you happen to be Prince, if tends to be impossible for an artist to play all the instruments and then give a vocal performance that doesn't sound like they're worrying about the frequency of the snare sound. So Dando's wisely teamed bock up with drummer David Ryan and ex-Blake Baby Juliana Hatfield on bass and vocals. Juliana's crystal voice traps a lot of light which, thankfully, has the effect of breaking up the smudge of Dando's occasionally rather beige voice. Oh, it' a nice enough beige. The beigeness of an ordinary, buttery haired, American kid with a weird name and strong Anglophilic tendencies, tendencies that make their presence keenly felt in the Elvis Coslello soundalike "Alison's Starting To Happen'. This one'll sound a lot like pukey old skinny tie power pop to some of you, and as new and thrilling as Pavement to others.
If you're expecting grunge,you'll be horribly disappointed because Dando's written songs, ones that feature slide guitar (Jeff "Skunk" Baxter on "Hannah And Gabi"), and procul Harum-style, Farfise (Barry Goldberg on "My Drug Buddy") and strange words that seep into your consciousness even when you're conscious that they're ridiculous ("Ceiling Fan In My Spoon"). Some of you are still possessed of the thoroughly old fashioned idea that songs with words demanding to be listened to are a bad thing. I suggest you purchase this album and get cured quick. Try not to resist.
David Roberts - From Q June 1992
With the current commercial and critical success enjoyed by contemporaries from Nirvana to Buffalo Tom, the abrasive guitars, parched, plaintive vocal, tight rhythms and melancholic verve of Boston modern rock veterans Lemonheads ought by rights to have found its moment. It's A Shame About Ray, the second major label offering from the outfit built around singer, guitarist, writer Evan Dando is their best yet. From the understated noise pop of Confetti to the appealing discordance of Rudderless to the warm, acoustic solemnity of My Drug Buddy, Lemonheads prove themselves masters at the pop art of taking a simple musical idea and maximising it to thrilling, melodious effect. With Lemonheads' former grunge excesses now streamlined by LA producers Robb Bros (Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart), this album thrills at neighbourhood-waking volume.
Keith Cameron - NME 11th July 1992
Ray To Go, Dando!
There was a time when it seemed The Lemonheads were destined to be remembered for what was not theirs. Three years ago we had the biker-booted reading of Suzanne Vega's 'Luka', and then came 'Different Drum', the gorgeous Mike Nesmith-penned pop rush that, in all honesty, the 'Heads pulled off far too well for their own good. Like, who needed to hear what their own songs sounded like?
Even on 1990's sporadically outstanding Atlantic debut 'Lovey', head 'Head Evan Dando was still at it, laying down a cherishable version of Gram Parsons 'Brass Buttons' that unavoidably begged negative comparisons with his own work. But with this, the fifth 'Heads album, Dando is at last emphatically his own man - and the results fall barely short of the miraculous.
One suspects it's largely due to Dando now being on his own. 'Lovey' saw Dando's acoustic instincts sitting a little uneasily with The Lemonheads' traditional amped-up adrenalin ride, and by the time it appeared the rest of the band had gone. 'It's A Shame About Ray' sees contributions from old 'Heads drummer Dave Ryan and Blake Baby Juliana Hatfield, but really this is Dando down to the grain, revealing him to be the master of big-hearted Country-flecked guitar pop. Whatever personal demons lurk behind that sandy face - scratch just below the surface and some of these reassuringly warm ditties reveal sinister aspects - this is an amazingly well-adjusted collection.
'Rockin' Stroll' takes pole position and could once have been an archetypal Lemonheads breakneck bustler but for the added textural graft Dando now seems to have knuckled down to. A fairground-compatible organ breezes in midway, and the album's damn near palpable sense of sunny-side-up well-being is established. Crucial to this end is Dando's voice, a smoky husk through which these small-scale snapshots of small-town lives assume considerably grander dimensions. "He kinda shoulda sorta woulda loved her if he could've," runs 'Confetti"s recurring theme, about as close to an aural shrug of the shoulders as is possible. It's instructive to note that on the title track and the carefree romp of 'Alison's Starting To Happen', Dando recalls Elvis Costello at his most evocative.
It's a record of little victories, but 'My Drug Buddy' is the landmark triumph, Dando's own 'Brass Buttons', the one if GP were still breathing the hickory wind he'd be asking to sing. Hatfield's angel-on-vacation voice joins Evan for an organ-based account of scoring whatever candy was on prescription at the time. "There's still some of the same stuff we got yesterday," they breathe, locked in some narcotic space capsule. You'll weep.
OK, so Dando can't resist the cover mania, but the version of 'Frank Mills' from Hair is a jokey throwaway book-end, and by that stage the battle's more than won. 'It's A Shame About Ray' suggests it's high time we recognise one of the premier American songwriting talents of this, sadly depleted, generation. (8)
Andrew Perry - Select 1992
Born of Boston’s post-hardcore scene, Lemonheads began life six years ago as a fairly furious punk band. Three years later, they made a debut for East West in 1990 which was far more lavish in texture and gentle in mood. Unfortunately, the American college market has since has its goalposts shifted…
When their fifth LP begins with the brisk ‘Rockin’ Stroll’, suspicions are that this group – or rather, sole mainstay member Evan Dando – is like one of those lizards that change colour with the climate. He’ll fit his craft to current trends. But the remaining eleven tracks soon show that to be a one-off. This is by far the best Lemonheads LP.
Dando’s a songwriter of sensitivity and whimsy – more Ray Davies than J Macsis – and he doesn’t need a surfeit or grunge to thrill the ear. ‘My Drug Buddy’ is a cracking tune. Even if they are a tad faster, ‘Alison’s Starting’, ‘Rudderless’, ‘Bit Part’ and the title track are just as lively and produced with apt smoothness. There’s the requisite quirky cover – a gorgeous version of ‘Frank Mills’ from the musical Hair – but by then you’ve heard enough to know Dando’s the main man.
Gregory Joseph - 2 Walls
For one brief shining moment The Lemonheads were all what was good with music. Indy roots. Catchy lyrics. A lead singer with matinee idol looks who couldn't be bothered to comb his hair. Evan Dando was Jimmy Fallon, when Jimmy Fallon was still doing his routine at the Sigma Nu house at Michigan. The Lemonheads were not as dirty as grunge but you could see countless nights crashing on someone's floor in their music and faces. The hard times between conception and recognition resulted in not having a solid lineup outside of Evan Dando. Even Juliana Hatfield, also from the Boston music scene, is listed as a band member on this classic 'It's a Shame About Ray.'
'Drug Buddy' is a nice song to listen to and conquer up memories of your college days when all you did was sit around and get stoned. For some reason, songs like 'Rudderless,' and 'Hannah and Gabi' stand out in your mind. The latter features Dando's signature simplicity when it comes to writing lyrics. When Dando sings: 'Pour the milk and I'll say when," it is simple only on the ears. Same for when he goes down that same road many of us have traveled saying: "I can't hold you near - you are not here. Though it wasn't hard or far, I walked you to your car." Simple, yet in conjures up a million different memories for a million different people. That particular line always reminds me of when I walked Suzanne to her car back in 1993. We ended up in the visitors' dugout at a baseball field in Maywood, New Jersey.
Dando spends a lot of the album baring his Generation X angst through lovely melodies and simple lyrics. However, he is not all that blue that he can't have fun. He has fun with 'Alison's Starting to Happen' which takes the number two spot in my personal favorite songs with the name Alison in them. (If you have to ask which is number one then you shouldn't be on this music site.) 'Alison's Starting…' is up-tempo and you can visualize this barely three minute song being crowd surfing material. If you're not airborne by the time Dando says: "Alison's getting her tit pierced. Alison's growing a Mohawk," you weren't smoking the right drugs in college. The fun doesn't end with their upbeat cover of 'Mrs. Robinson' that Paul Simon hated but this Simon fan is just grateful that The Lemonheads didn't replace Joe DiMaggio with another ball player. I cringe at the thought of 'Where have you gone Andre Dawson?'
Nick Bendel - Suite 101
It’s A Shame About Ray (1992) is the sixth album in the Lemonheads’ collection. A number of hiccups aside, lead singer (and chief songwriter) Evan Dando shows a talent for writing casual and yet disarmingly enjoyable songs.
The third song on the album, the title track, is typical. Light guitar and a charming melody it is the kind of song ideal for radio play (which is not to denigrate it in any way). This is when Dando and the rest of the band (drummer David Ryan and bassist Juliana Hatfield) are at their best.
The other songs which fit this description are of a similar high standard. These include "Rudderless," "The Turnpike Down" and "Hannah & Gabi." Almost as good, and again showing the ear for a tune possessed by the Lemonheads, are some rockier contributions. The opener, "Rockin Stroll," gets It’s A Shame About Ray off to a flying start, while it closes on a similar note with a cover of the Simon and Garfunkel classic "Mrs Robinson."
And yet, despite all these positive comments, there are some obvious weaker moments on this record. The convoluted "Frank Mills," for example, is awful and considering it was penned by an outsider (James Rado) it is very strange that it found its way on to the album. Other songs, like "Buddy," "Bit Part," "Alison’s Starting to Happen" and "Ceiling Fan in My Spoon," although quite good, fall short.
Because of this It’s A Shame About Ray is frustratingly inconsistent. It’s probably telling that the best songs on this album are the simple pop songs, while the band appear to falter when straying away from this formula.
Bob Mehr - Magnet Magazine June 2003
A charmed collision of styles, this 12-track, 33-minute, hook-laden masterwork doesn't have a wasted breath or note on it. Though miles removed from the nascent thrash of earlier Lemonheads efforts, Dando remains in thrall to dynamic pop/punk acolytes like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü while managing to shake bits of bubblegum, fizzed-up country, rollicking roots and twisting wordplay into a spiked cocktail for the post-grunge masses. Juliana Hatfield's bubbly bass and chirpy harmonies create a compelling counterpoint to Dando's big vocal burr and crunching chords throughout. Closing with "Frank Mills" (a gender-bending take on Hair's rhymeless hippie love), Ray establised an endearingly kooky template Dando would never again manage to capture quite so perfectly. Doobie Brother alert: Beret-wearing, mustachioed '70s session hand Jeff "Skunk" Baxter guests on guitar.