Reviews of Varshons II
John Coakley, MXDWN February 2019
Peaks and Valleys
The Lemonheads have returned to producing cover albums with Varshons 2, the sequel to 2009’s Varshons. The band’s newest release is a joyful, carefree exploration of the band’s influences–maybe it’s just because they’re becoming increasingly rare, but there’s something inherently fun about an album comprised entirely of covers. Still, Varshons 2 is an up and down experience–the standout tracks are fantastic, while others fall flat.
Varshons 2 opens with a low-key, mellow cover of Yo La Tengo’s “Can’t Forget.” The track has a nice swing to it, and the duet vocals are well done. Stylistically, the vocal arrangement is similar to Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers’ performance on Better Oblivion Community Center.
The band ping-pongs back and forth across a number of genres throughout the album–everything from folk to classic rock to reggae, and plenty in between. Folk is a particularly good sound for the band, as evidenced by their cover of John Prine’s “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness.” The simple, minimalist dynamic of vocals and an acoustic guitar suits frontman Evan Dando well.
The group’s rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Abandoned” is one of the album’s best offerings. With a similar ballad-style progression and cut time tempo, the transition from “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” to this track is seamless. However, this one kicks things off with a heavy, distorted guitar tone, giving it a distinctly different feel than its predecessor. This track contains some of the album’s most inspired lead guitar work, with a sonic and tonal similarity to Slash’s play on Guns n’ Roses 1992 release, Use Your Illusion. Dando’s use of melodic major pentatonic licks, expressive bends and a wah-wah pedal makes the lofty comparison justifiable. The highly emotive guitar playing almost makes it sound as if the guitar and vocals are trading duet verses.
Similarly, the Lemonheads’ cover of “Straight To You” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is a stirring rendition, and arguably the best song on Varshons 2. Lead guitar once again stands out, as Dando implements the same Slash-style playing as “Abandoned.” Although the band is certainly not known for heart-wrenching ballads, it’s a sound they achieve with striking success.
As the band traverse their varied influences throughout the album, it’s clear that they’re having fun doing it. However, this doesn’t always translate to their best work, as some of their classic rock and blues-influenced performances are a bit stale. Songs like “Things,” “Old Man Blank,” “TAQN” and “Magnet” lack the flare of their aforementioned counterparts. The band even dares to try their hand at reggae on “Unfamiliar,” a bold move but hardly the group’s best. Granted these are not original songs so only so much criticism can be levied against the Lemonheads, but these performances often fail to do anything as musically interesting as the album’s better tracks. Even the album’s closer, a cover of the ubiquitous “Take It Easy” by The Eagles just feels a bit flat, though it does effectively encapsulate the carefree nature of Varshons 2.
Generally speaking, when the Lemonheads move closer to their blues/classic rock influences, their songs become a bit more static and less interesting. The stripped-down, simplified ballads and folk tunes are the best Varshons 2 has to offer. Given the fact that it’s a cover album and therefore lacks any overarching connective tissue, listeners can easily parse through Varshons 2 and listen to the album’s better tracks without worrying about missing out on the full experience. This album has some ups and downs that make it tough to recommend as a complete album, but the highs are so worthwhile.
Sam Lambeth - Louder than War February 2019
Evan Dando makes long-awaited return with another stellar slew of rarely-trodden rock classics.
There was a story that, during Evan Dando’s deranged dalliance with Mancunian giants Oasis, after the Gallagher brothers had long wiped the post-show sweat off their monobrows, the attendees flocking out of the venue were greeted to the sight and sound of Dando dolefully serenading them with his acoustic guitar, high above (and, let’s face it, probably high) on the roof. While at the time it was deemed the act of a man slowly unravelling, in reality this prospect should be greeted with alacrity – after all, no other singer in modern times has a voice as soothing and hangdog as Dando. He has the ability, with that whiskey-soaked sweetness, to lullaby any post-gig-goer into content slumber.
Ten years since his last record, you can feel that sentiment stronger than ever. It’s in the gently swooning version of Lucinda Williams’ Abandoned. In the waltzing, warped riffs and hazy strums of Yo La Tengo track Can’t Forget and all over the faithful, but still fantastic, rendition of Eagles classic Take It Easy. Fans of the likes of Frank Mills and Favourite T will be particularly enamoured with Dando’s contemplative take on John Prine’s Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.
Varshons II’s predecessor suffered from sprawl – forays into grubby Eurodance and swampy narcotic rock rubbed awkwardly against songs more suited to the Dando drawl. On round two, the selection is sensible, each song a formidable framework for Dando to augment his shrugging baritone and light-fingered strumming. The only real surprises come in how he tackles the songs – the erstwhile extreme polish of Round Here, by country music duo Florida Georgia Line, is stripped to its bare minimum, enabling Dando to sing otherwise laughable lines (“hammer and nail, stacking those bales”, “Jessie’s getting ready / gassing up the Chevy”) and make them sound like coffee-stained confessions.
For the most part, Varshons II serves as a reminder. Not just of the talents of the original artists chosen, but of what made the world fall in love with Dando for in the first place. The Jayhawks’ Settled Down Like Rain is already an underrated melodic masterpiece, but Dando matches the original’s harmony-drenched disposition. Things, originally by fellow alt rock behemoth Paul Westerberg, chugs with wistful fuzz. Magnet and Now and Then keep the stomp and sprightliness of the original compositions, but Dando’s delivery gives them a deeper gravitas.
The elephant in the room remains – it’s been an agonising 13 years since The Lemonheads released any original music, and surely the breezy, beefed-up rock of 2006’s self-titled album can’t be their swansong. But covers are Dando’s bread and butter, and Varshons II serves as a love letter to the breadth and talent of rock music, but also to Dando’s sizeable melodic gifts.
Pablo Gorondi, ASSOCIATED PRESS February 2019
Cover versions have played a conflicting role for Evan Dando and The Lemonheads, their takes on "Luka" and "Mrs. Robinson" clearing paths but also boxing them in for some listeners.
Nonetheless, 2009's "Varshons"—with songs by Gram Parsons, Wire and Leonard Cohen, among others—was hailed as an excellent if stopgap effort until the surely imminent release of original material.
Barely a decade on, "Vershons 2" follows up and reprises the quality of its predecessor but hopes for a full album of self-penned material have mostly dissipated. So get used to Evan Dando as interpreter instead of songwriter—with so long between releases, there'll be plenty of time to adjust.
In most cases, Dando respects the original arrangements, with his de-stressed and bittersweet vocals adding an extra layer of emotion to excellent songs, like Paul Westerberg's "Things," NRBQ's "Magnet," and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' "Straight to You."
Nashville's Natural Child get a tip of the hat with "Now and Then," which has three guitarists, a "Brimful of Asha"-like rhythm and will hopefully send listeners their way. On some tracks—John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" and Lucinda Williams' "Abandoned," for example—Dando picks up some of the vocal fingerprints of the originals, which comes across as endearing where it could be irritating.
Marciana Jones—part of TSP with Dando and Willy Mason—contributes some excellent backing vocals throughout and shares the spotlight with Dando on the Jayhawks' "Settled Down Like Rain." Other bands covered include Yo La Tengo, The Bevis Frond, and country duo Florida Georgia Line.
Is closer "Take It Easy," the Eagles' anthem of the laid back, Dando's tongue-in-cheek allusion to his slacker tag? Is "Varshons 3" next or, at long last, his own songs? Better have a seat while you wait.
Dom Daly, RPM Online February 2019
So the brand new Lemonheads album is another covers affair but this time they’ve gone bananas, no literally they have. It’s pressed on Banana yellow scratch and sniff vinyl. I’ve still got my Damned Strawberries scratch and sniff but it no longer smells of Strawberries though. Anyway, The Lemonheads and Mr Dando what have they got for us?
Thirteen tracks that entered the head of Dando and from his influences it was always going to be an eclectic wide-ranging affair with all aspects of their back catalogue ranging from the country honk of Parsons to the fury of Minor Threat and just about everything in between I guess the only thing to expect is the unexpected.
So clear your mind sit back relax and float downstream as they say. Yo La Tengo are up first and Lemonheads take on ‘Can’t Forget’ then I realise its been almost a decade since the last album of covers and flitting from GG Allin to Gram Parsons you won’t find a more diverse set of tunes yet Dando managed to own the lot of them and on this Varshons he’s managed exactly the same. Why do covers and not write yourself? Who knows only Evan Dando can answer that one but its once again an inspired collection
I love the quote that Lemonheads’ main man Evan Dando has this strange ability – he could sing his order for a takeaway over the phone and make it into an achy three-minute epic fit for any bar. Indeed, many moons ago when Bush was dallying with the big red button over a Middle East catastrophe, he delivered an impromptu ‘Eve Of Destruction’ losing his sunglasses due to added angst. is a spot on assessment.
Jayhawks, Westerberg, Nick Cave and The Eagles all make it onto this album and they all fit right into that Evan Dando Lemonheads pocket once again. There’s maudlin beauty in the likes of ‘Settled Down Like Rain’ from The Jayhawks and he’s clearly heavily influenced by the likes of Lucinda Williams and Paul Westerberg.
Dando always liked telling stories and his lyrics like ‘Shame About Ray’ helped carve and style his career so heading out into a Nick Cave tune is something that sits really well and you can tell who wrote it but like previously mentioned Dando takes ownership as well not an easy task.
‘TAQN’ sounds like a hoot as they turn the amps up whilst ‘Unfamiliar’ – a tune Dando penned with former Smudge man Tom Morgan, a kind of skank like Keith Richards number that might have been written whilst under the influence of some substances with its Reggae undercurrent.
They (The Lemonheads) never shied away from covering other peoples songs seeing as in the early days ‘Luka’ helped get airplay in the UK for sure whilst ‘Mrs Robinson’ was a big deal and his version of ‘Hey Thats No Way To Say Goodbye’ was only surpassed by Michael Monroe when he did it. On ‘Varshons 2’ they take the covers idea and really go to town on the concept. Dando crooning on Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds ‘Straight To You’ is fitting even if it’s not the most obvious or indeed popular Cave song he could have borrowed but it works and I like it. Calling time on this album Dando takes a run at the Eagles ‘Take It Easy’ and I’m sat here with a mental picture of a contented Evan Dando taking his cans off saying its a wrap and grinning out the door having just delivered a full stop that was easy peazy playing a bunch of tunes you love and live and getting to take em home with you and shove em on your very own Lemonheads mixtape Evan Dando style – I like it always have liked his work and with records like this there’s no reason to stop just yet. great work and a lot of fun!
Adrian, Adequacy.net February 2019
Contrastingly far less productive is long-running Lemonheads leader Evan Dando, who hasn’t released a new album – aside from archival wares via Fire Records, Rhino, Edsel and Hall of Records – since 2009’s somewhat forgettable Varshons covers collection on Cooking Vinyl. Ten years later it’s hyper-lazy on paper that Dando should return with another studio set of other people’s songs. Relying on the goodwill afforded in perpetuity for his early career highs with The Lemonheads and 2002’s solo-billed Baby I’m Bored, Dando can still get away with some of this middle-aged slackness, as the unimaginatively-titled Varshons II verifies.
Assembling a new loose core band line-up and a selection of guests that include members of Dando’s one-7”-only side-project The Sandwich Police (namely Marciana Jones and Nina Violet), Come’s Chris Brokaw, Willy Mason and Lee Falco, Varshons II canters along as a casual grab-bag of songs plucked from largely obscure locations. Whilst the results are mixed, there’s no doubt that Dando hasn’t fully lost the reinterpretative knack that previously served him so well on likes of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” or Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum”.
With Jones as a particularly effective backing vocal foil, the most instantly likeable moments lean towards balmy rustic arrangements. Hence, Yo La Tengo’s Fakebook highlight “Can’t Forget”, The Jayhawks’ “Settled Down Like Rain”, Lucinda Williams’s “Abandoned”, Florida Georgia Line’s “Round Here” and John Prine’s “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” are pretty safe harbours for those with a justifiable soft-spot for the tousled troubadour persona he adopted for the bucolic bulk of Baby I’m Bored. Stepping outside those comfier Americana environs, things vary between the captivating and the clunky. In the respect to the former tranche, a VU chugging rewiring of Paul Westerberg’s “Things” is remarkably affecting, a Sticky Fingers-smeared reading of Natural Child’s “Now And Then” brings in some memorable honky-tonk hooks, a nimble reading of NRBQ’s “Magnet” is warmly infectious and a churning prowl through The Bevis Frond’s “Old Man Blank” dives somewhere intriguingly dark. In the latter respect, the weaknesses are more apparent with a thrash-around The Eyes’ “TAQN”, the cod-reggae remoulding of The Give Goods’ “Unfamiliar” and an overly-murky makeover of Nick Cave’s “Straight To You”.
Proceedings close with a breezy beyond-obvious country-rock ramble through The Eagles’ “Take It Easy”, which almost feels like a pre-emptive couldn’t care less push-back to observers who might be descending on Varshons II determined to dismember it on principle. Whilst some may still be dead-set on its critical destruction for the lack of creative movement forward or any indication that Evan Dando is likely to shake-off his songwriting torpor of the last fifteen or so years, it’s genuinely hard not to be disarmed by the unpretentious charm at play.