The Lemonheads "Varshons" [Cooking Vinyl, out 22nd June]
Let's face it, The Lemonheads' 2006 comeback album was a disappointment; while occasional tracks like 'No Backbone' and 'Pittsburgh' reminded people why Evan Dando (and longtime songwriting partner Tom Morgan, who was behind 'Backbone') was once a force to be reckoned with, the album as a whole seemed as aimless and lazy as its title (The Lemonheads), especially when compared to Dando's 2003 'solo' album Baby I'm Bored, his most coherant and rewarding set in a decade. Varshons, produced by Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, makes no effort to tip the balance one way or another; a collection of covers, it clocks in at just over half an hour (just like its predecessor), but doesn't seem to be tarnished by any sense of what people might want from a new Lemonheads record. It's this casual - but by no means tossed-off - air that makes Varshons possibly the strongest (though hardly the most consistent) album to bear the Lemonheads name since the mid-nineties.
The Lemonheads have always had a winning way with covers; 'Different Drum' became the band's breakthrough single, while even It's a Shame About Ray, as genuinely flawless a collection of songs as it is, ends with a song from the musical Hair!. One longtime source of inspiration has always been Gram Parsons - Dando has covered a number of songs from his catalogue, including a version of 'Brass Buttons' on the band's major label debut Lovey, and reworking the classic 'How Much I've Lied' for a 1993 radio session with the beautiful and talented Juliana Hatfield. It's therefore fitting that Varshons kicks off with another Parsons track, this time a rough, but instantly loveable early number of his, entitled 'I Just Can't Take It Anymore', which was only officially released at the start of this decade. The 2009 varshon, which is set to be the album's first single, sounds like a vintage cut of Dando's own, all rolling drums, sunny strums and winding melody, thinly veiling the bitterness of the lyrics ("We could have done a lot/We certainly did not/So I'll try to do the things I did before..."), and sets up the album's relaxed feel from the off.
Next up is a hushed take on one of the few reflective moments from Wire's peerless Pink Flag album, 'Fragile'; in the hands of the Lemonheads, the song gets opened up into a lush, though fleeting, country ballad. This, along with his take on Townes Van Zandt's 'Waiting Around to Die', reminiscent of American Recordings-era Johnny Cash, are the album's darkest highlights, and also serve to remind the listener of just how great Dando is at the dark stuff. Meanwhile, the best thing in the classic Lemonheads-style is a dumb take on G.G. Allin's 'Layin' Up With Linda'; another upbeat jangler, it again masks the darkly comic lyrics ("I got pissed and killed her/Now I'm on the run/Living with Linda used to be fun..."), and makes for a bright interlude into a surprisingly sombre record.
Unfortunately, following a couple more tracks in the dusky country vein (most notably, the haunting 'Yesterlove', which features a spiralling acoustic guitar line, and some exotic Indian percussion), Varshons takes a desperate tailspin in its second half, with too many unmemorable meandering tracks from which it never quite recovers. The album's nadir is the ersatz electro experimentation of 'Dirty Robot', which features the vocal 'talents' of one Kate Moss. Yeah. That Kate Moss. There's little more to add on the matter other than that the track is potentially the worst thing ever to bear the Lemonheads name, sounding like nothing more like a bad Client b-side. Fortunately, the album's other big-name collaboration, a faithful version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye' fares much better; with emotively breathy guest vocals from Liv Tyler, the simple rendition of Cohen's beatific ballad is a late saving grace, and also serves to build up anticipation for the album's most talked-about track, 'Beautiful'.
Yes, Varshons, ends with a cover of a Christina Aguilera track, and y'know what? It's a fucking joy. Dando does nothing fancy with the track, simply layering up the acoustic guitars and letting the song - which, let's face it, has always been great - speak for itself. By the time the track fades to its hazy conclusion - ornamented by a curious Thin Lizzy-style double guitar chime - the mid-album slump is almost forgotten (I say almost - this is a record which features Kate Moss on vocals). It's certainly not perfect, but Dando's voice sounds in fine form, and majority of these tracks are infused with a heart and soul that seems to suggest that he really enjoyed recording them. A worthwhile detour, then, but now it's time for Evan Dando to show the world what he can really do when he tries...