Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Lemonheads

How do we escape the ghosts of the 16 year old us-es? There's no way. I could read a million brilliant books and none would do what London Fields did to the teenage me. No film will recapture the magic summoned up by Quadrophenia or Withnail and I. I could obsessively follow the music scene and listen to as many remarkable new bands as possible. But nothing would halt the heart-shimmy provoked by hearing, I dunno, Pavement's 'Summer Babe' or Mercury Rev's 'Car Wash Hair'. I'm past making huge emotional links between myself and my favourite bands. But it still hurts when Sleater-Kinney split up, when I think of Blur onstage without Graham Coxon. It's like I kept the 16 year old me stored up, ready to pounce.

He sent me scurrying down to the record shop last week to snatch up a ticket to the Lemonheads date at the Brighton Concorde, which I went to last night. It was a birthday present from the 16 year old me. But it wasthe Lemonheads. What do the Lemonheads have to do with the 29 year old me, what do they have to do with 2006? Only the fact that my insides still lurch when I hear the opening chords to 'It's A Shame About Ray' or the chorus to 'Hannah and Gabi' and I wonder if it's the 16 year old me kicking to get out. The Lemonheads I thought I'd forgotten, and then I saw they'd reformed. Whoomph.

My on-off love affair with The Lemonheads started in 1992, when I was actually preoccupied with cooler, artier or more fashionable bands. What did I need with Evan Dando's short, romantic pop songs when Dinosaur Jr were creating epic, soaring noise or Pavement alternately jarring and melodic art rock? Except that I did listen to The Lemonheads, or more specifically their 29 minute long classic 'It's A Shame About Ray', and for all that Nirvana or Sonic Youth were blisteringly singular, I kept - and keep - coming back to the astonishingly consistent, bright and tuneful rock songs on '...Ray', songs which combined Dando's love of the tuneful Australian rock of the Triffids, the Go-Betweens and Smudge with the punk metal sounds of hardcore and grunge.

Although things tailed off after 'Ray, and after nearly ten years out of sight, Dando's comeback record, 'The Lemonheads', created with the backing of The Descendents and - gloiously, albeit briefly - J Mascis, is the best pop record I've bought in 2006. And last night was one of the best gigs I've ever seen. A few songs in Dando noted, "this song came out in 1990. I'm an old man". Perhaps, although judging by the ecstatic reception he was afforded at the Concorde 2 (and the fact that, old or not, while in England this week - and at pretty much any other time - he's probably the best looking man in a radius of 500 miles) his talent, always lazy and always underappreciated, is as luminous as ever.

Dando is one of those musicians who has always been known for his sense of (wayward) fun and his willingness to connect with his audience whenever they ask. To that end, he was effortlessly charming as ever, fronting a stripped down power trio and infecting every guitar lick with enjoyment. The set, which consisted of more than 30 short, effervescent songs, was delightfully ramshackle and simple, Dando ignoring pretty much every opportunity to solo and sticking to bright, poppy riffs - although he took the opportunity, during a storming 'Confetti', to unleash a guitar solo that J Mascis would be proud of. It's a typical Dando trait which some find infuriating; bothering only once or twice to break sweat, but it's enormously endearing.

The songs, naturally, were heartbreakingly good. How perfectly, for example, does 'Confetti' distill Evan Dando's slacker romantic streak?; "He kinda shoulda sorta woulda loved her if he coulda", Dando croons. 'It's a Shame About Ray' is the prettiest song of the 1990s and hasn't aged a day. The sheer amount of memorable tunes on '...Ray' (played pretty much in its entirety last night) is incredible, the ultra tuneful 'The Turnpike Down', 'Alison's Starting to Happen' and 'Bit Part' all gorgeous live. More interestingly, the new songs, particularly 'Let's Just Laugh' and the lovely new single 'Become The Enemy' fit in seamlessly. The latter is classic Lemonheads, right down to that opening lyric, "It's my fault / That I never earned a trade / So I just scrape all day", before dissecting the breakdown of a relationship and accepting the blame.

That's a recurring theme for Dando. Even 'Baby's Home', one of the sludgiest songs on the new record, is lovely tonight, enlivened by Dando's massive grin and more slight, lovelorn lyrics, ("When a horse breaks its leg / then it's best to shoot it / cause it's quick and it eases the pain"). The set takes on new life, meanwhile, when most bands would be packing up for the night, when Dando's bandmates leave the stage and leave him to play a delightful acoustic interlude, stripping his songs down to their folky, observational bones. He even plays a rapturously received 'Frank Mills', which I never expected to see. 'The Outdoor Type' and 'Being Around' are sung word for word by the audience, and are interrupted by shouts of "we love you" and "you're brilliant".

The return of the full band for the final two songs provokes stronger reactions still. 'My Drug Buddy' is surely one of the most beautiful songs ever spun out of dependence. Again, the audience bellows every line, often drowning out Dando's deep whisper. I join in, crying "She's coming over / we'll go out walking / make a call on the way / She's in the phone booth now / I'm looking in / There comes a smile on her face". Not many of Dando's peers - and plenty went down a similar route; smack - managed to combine their tales of withdrawal and nausea with such an observation of beauty. Where the stoned Kurt Cobain saw only pain, Dando was able to note "We have to laugh to look at each other / we have to laugh, cause we're not alone/ As the cars fly down Kings Street, it's enough to startle us". Beside me I'm horrified to see a couple around my age standing with their teenage daughter, which reminds me how old I am. The daughter is wearing a Queens of The Stone Age t-shirt, and is more horrified still to see her mother singing along and shouting "I love my drug buddy".

Finally, inevitably, is 'Rudderless' the Lemonheads' classic, their 'Freak Scene' or 'Teen Spirit'. The intro sparks mass hugging. When Evan cries "Waiting for something to break / left my heart out to bake" the whole venue seems to swoon as one. 'Rudderless' is the best indie rock song of the 1990s, I decide, experiencing a moment of euphoria.

Of course, the band are hauled back out for an encore, but it is cut short when someone informs the band that - over an hour and a half into their set - they've run out of time. "Sorry guys", Dando shrugs, "there's a curfew". Everyone groans as the DJ puts on a record and begins to bring up the lights. "I mean, I don't care", Dando continues, "I'll play through it", and grabs his acoustic, leading us through an inevitable and lusty 'Big Gay Heart'. The second he finishes the house lights are snapped on immediately and we start getting ushered out. "Fuck off", Dando snarls, launching immediately into 'Into Your Arms'. There's a lovely moment, a moment of uncertainty when everyone wonders what will happen. The lights are dimmed again and he's allowed, again drowned out by voices, to carry us to the end of the song.

It's a delightful conclusion, and utterly in keeping with the spirit of one of the best, brightest, most fun and least understood rock groups of the last twenty years. Absolutely brilliant stuff, all told.

I like it so much I buy a t-shirt. Or at least, the 16 year old me does.


Ben said...

Never heard much Lemonheads, but as ever your reviews have the knack of really getting me interested.

Incidentally, I've been listening to Tanglewood Numbers by Silver Jews quite a bit of late - it's taken me a while to get into it (understatement), but now I definitely am. Can't believe I missed them when they played here in Cardiff a couple of months ago...

jonathan said...

Ah, race out and buy 'It's A Shame About Ray' today - won't be regretted. It's an awesome record. Or, if you wanna just download it, know that you can do so with Dando's blessing. At the gig he asked "How many of you have got the new record?". There was a sizeable cheer. "The rest of you", he added, "Go download it tonight. Get it for free, that's cool".

Glad you're enjoying Tanglwood Numbers, it's a great record, yeah. I was away when they were over in the UK so I missed them too, unfortunately.

Oh, and another band I know I've nearly interested you in the past - I saw the totally inconsistent British Sea Power again the other night and, this time, they were incredible. Did you ever explore them any further?

Kim Møller said...

Nice review..

Ill See Lemonheads in Copenhagen ten days from now. Last year i saw him solo i Aarhus, and I got in my late teens again...

Three weeks from now, Juliana Hatfield plays live in Aarhus - loved her back them.

Kim, Aarhus - Denmark

Anonymous said...

Ever so perfectly captured! I stumbled across your post while looking for the lyrics to kinda shoulda sorta woulda....I would LOVE to see them in concert again! It would really take me back to a time when you're right, we'll never again feel the same emotional connection to bands as we did at 16 but we can revisit for a moment.