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Back From the Black

After a descent into darkness, Evan Dando returns with a new version of the Lemonheads.

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The Lemonheads were a great band on many levels, but their music was always overshadowed by the outsized persona of their frontman, Evan Dando. In the band's rise to fame in the early '90s, Dando came to adorn the bedroom walls of the hipper teen girls, while his band seemed to perpetually be featured in Sassy's Cute Band Alert! Then came the much-publicized drug spiral which had Dando latching onto Oasis as a fifth wheel and admitting to the British press that he had recently smoked enough crack to temporarily destroy his voice.

The son of a dentist and a fashion model, Dando formed what would become the Lemonheads (then known as the Whelps) during his last year at the upper-crust Commonwealth High School in Boston. Following graduation and a failed stint at Skidmore College, Dando and co-founder Ben Deily changed the band's name to the Lemonheads and released an EP titled Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners.

At this point, the band was pulling the Hüsker Dü trick of injecting post-hardcore with a lot of pop. Boston's token independent label at the time, Taang!, took notice and signed the band. The resulting debut album, Hate Your Friends (1987), plus its follow-up, Creator (1988), found the Lemonheads taking a fantastic run at the frantic sound that Boston underground bands such as Mission of Burma and the Moving Targets were known for. In fact, Creator's "Clang Bang Clang" is the best Mission of Burma rewrite to come from the countless attempts of bands influenced by the Boston legends. The Lemonheads' third album, 1989's Lick, piled on even more pop, as well as some acoustic leanings, and attained brief notoriety for its full-throttle cover of Suzanne Vega's hit "Luka." Deily then lost a spotlight power struggle and departed, leaving Dando to steer the band to higher-profile pastures.

Bettina Richards, who would go on to form Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records, was a major-label A&R rep in 1990 and got the Lemonheads signed to Atlantic a full year before the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" feeding frenzy would gorge on the indie underground, awarding scores of lesser-known bands with big advances and even bigger debts.

Lovey, released the same year, did not make the Lemonheads a household name but did showcase Dando's further moves away from volume and speed and into country pop, culminating in a cover of his hero Gram Parson's "Brass Buttons." Two years later, when the band's It's a Shame About Ray was stacking up favorable attention in the Nirvana-saturated, alternative-friendly world of underground rock, a non-album cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" (recorded to coincide with the video release of The Graduate) would make the band, and especially the photogenic Dando, big stars. Reportedly disdainful of the track, the band nonetheless begrudgingly added it as the last track on a second version of Ray in 1992.

Dando hung out with stars (Johnny Depp), dated stars, became Gen-X's pin-up boy (People magazine voted him one of 1993's "Sexiest Men Alive"), and was even the negative muse for the short-lived fanzine I Hate Evan Dando. That yardstick of morality, Courtney Love, offered one of her more hilarious interview moments when she admitted to "having impure thoughts" when Dando once stayed at the Cobain household.

To say the least, the Lemonheads were poised for serious stardom with the release of 1993's Come On Feel the Lemonheads. That didn't happen. Despite "Into Your Arms" scratching at the back door of the Top 40, the frontman's problems were beginning to sabotage the band's ascent. Drugs had become an issue, and Dando's erratic behavior, like showing up unannounced at other artists' shows with guitar in hand and incoherent mumbles at the ready, were all working to accelerate the singer's downward spiral. Dando went solo and toured with Epic Soundtracks in 1995 but was booed from the stage at the Glastonbury Festival for showing up several hours late. A drug meltdown in an Australian airport capped off his two-and-a-half-year lost weekend, and Dando then attempted sobriety for one final Lemonheads record, 1996's good but neglected Car Button Cloth (with Dinosaur Jr. drummer Murph on board).

Despite going into self-imposed exile until 2001, when he launched a solo world tour (Live at the Brattle Theater/Griffith Sunset was released the same year as a tour document), Dando has been fairly active since. His first proper solo album, Baby I'm Bored, appeared in 2003, and the newly focused songwriter embarked on a couple of disparate collaborations: one with the reunited MC5 and the other as a songwriting helping hand for the Dandy Warhols. Last year, it was announced that the Lemonheads name would be used for a project fronted by Dando with, interestingly enough, Karl Alvarez and Bill Stephenson of the Descendents/All backing him up.

Signed to Vagrant Records, this revamped Lemonheads produced a self-titled album that avoids the straightforward pop-punk the line-up (and label) might have suggested in favor of a rocking, mature version of something the band could have easily done in the late '80s. The expert hook-writing that Dando was always known for is, at least most of the time, in effect here, and the album is aided by the guest guitar wailings of longtime buddy J. Mascis ("No Backbone" and "Steve's Boy"), though Gibby Haynes' noise intro on the otherwise great "Rule of Three" seems like an afterthought. Considering that 1996 (the year of the last Lemonheads album) could have easily been the last peep from Dando, Lemonheads is an honorable return to form that will delight old fans and possibly win new ones who weren't even born when Hate Your Friends was released.

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