Sound: Over the years The Lemonheads have certainly carved out a cozy niche when it transforming well-known classics into their own blend of mellow, alternative rock. Their versions of Mrs. Robinson and Luka played a good part in getting the band recognition, and this year Evan Dando, Vess Ruhtenberg, and Devon Ashley are coming full circle with a brand new album of covers called Varshons. This time around, however, the titles won't be as easy to recognize as a Paul Simon or Suzanne Vega tune. Fragile (Wire), Waiting Around To Die (Townes Van Zandt), or Dandelion Seeds (July) are just a few of the obscure tunes that make up Varshons, and in many ways the band was wise to choose tracks that were under the radar. After all, you won't be scrutinized quite as much as if you recorded a Zeppelin tune.
From the opening track I Just Can't Take It Anymore (originally performed by Gram Parsons), there is almost a Bob Dylan vibe to the setup. With the acoustic and vocals taking center stage, The Lemonheads sound folksier than ever before. While this sound remains true to Parsons' song, the acoustic approach doesn't do justice to Wire's Fragile, which was actually more of a punk tune in its first incarnation. Because you won't necessarily recognize every song, it's going to feel like a whole new listening experience in any case. The low, droll delivery of Layin' Up With Linda (G.G. Allin) and the bluegrass-driven Waiting Around To Die (Townes Van Zandt) are similar to the original recordings smart moves considering the original recordings had plenty of character of their own.
Much of the album, which was produced by the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes, does tend to stick with the low-key side of the band. Once you get to the halfway mark, however, The Lemonheads pull out a few surprises. Dirty Robot is an electronica song by the Dutch duo Arling & Cameron, and Dando decides to let a lot of that synth/sampling content remain present. It's definitely pared down, however, and The Lemonheads' version actually allows the base melody to come through better than the original. Another unique feature to that track is the addition of Kate Moss on vocals not to mention a robot who talks/sings a great deal toward the end. Dandelion Seeds (originally by the 1960's British band July) is by far the most effective track on Varshons, with many solo sections channeling Jimi Hendrix. // 7
Lyrics: None of the lyrical content was written by Dando, but he certainly chose an eclectic mix of themes for Varshons. You'll hear songs about everything from, well, troublemaking little machines (Dirty Robot) to heart-wrenching breakups (Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye), and the whole thing actually feels like a musical history lesson. I'd be lying if I said that I was aware of Austin's F--kemos or that Lemmy of Motorhead fame used to be in a band called Sam Gopal. Thankfully, Varshons is a nice little introduction to those bands' material, as well as quite a few other bands that aren't the usual commercial radio darlings. // 9
Overall Impression: Because the delivery of Evan Dando often leans on the dry side, it's hard to get overly enthusiastic about Varshons particularly when it seems like many of the originals had a little more life in them. That being said, The Lemonheads deserve credit for selecting cover songs that might not be the usual go-to choices. There are some pleasant surprises along the way, and the instrumentation is at its best in Mexico, which is enhanced by fiddles and assorted strings, and Green Fuz, which recreates the scrumptious psychedelic guitar sound heard in the late 60's. It's all topped off by depending on your perspective a masterful joke or an uplifting ballad: Christina Aguilera's Beautiful. You're the judge on that one. // 8