Underneath the Covers
Ex-golden boy Evan Dando is still standing
The covers album is often the last resort of the musical scoundrel, a soul-destroying exercise in treading water, a sure sign that the artist in question is bereft of inspiration. Who could ever forget--and God knows how we've tried--for example, Duran Duran's ludicrous Thank You and its unintentionally hilarious take on Public Enemy's "911 is a Joke"?
Evan Dando, the longtime Lemonheads front man--yes, they still exist and, yes, people still care--is, however, refreshingly candid when it comes to justifying the existence of Varshons (The End), his newly released covers album. "It was really just 'cause I'd bought this painting, y'see and I thought I should put it into the budget of something," he says by phone. "It's the picture on the album cover. My buddy had an op-art show in Brooklyn, I bought the painting and then I was like, Shit, I gotta make a record to cover the cost. So I turned to Gibby [Haynes, of the Butthole Surfers and long time friend], we talked about doing the record and that was it. It's really just a light affair, pretty much for fun, a between-records kinda thing."
All modesty (and crippling op-art habit) aside, Varshons actually holds its own, for the most part, and there are some classics within. Aided and abetted by Haynes and Only Ones guitarist John Perry, plus celebrity friends Liv Tyler and Kate Moss, there's a gentle take on Wire's "Fragile," a darkly comic run through GG Allin's "Layin' Up With Linda," and a stunning, slo-mo deconstruction of Randy Alvey's garage-rock classic, "Green Fuz." Dando has an excellent track record in exemplary cover versions, from Mike Nesmith's "Different Drum," to the Velvet's "Jesus," to a heartbroken rendition of Abba's "Knowing Me, Knowing You." So, how does he choose them, and more importantly, what makes a good cover?
"Hmm, that's tough," he says. "Personally, I can't do a real all-time favorite, y'know? I wouldn't do 'Waterloo Sunset' or 'Outdoor Miner.' No Stooges. No Stones. No Modern Lovers. There's just some things you can't touch. I don't know why I feel I can touch Gram Parsons, though, but I just can."
Varshons kicks off with a sublime canter through Parsons' "I Just Can't Take It Anymore," the latest in a long line of Parsons covers in the Lemonheads catalog. The affinity stretches back to sessions for 1990's Lovey, which included one of Dando's finest moments, the haunting "Ride With Me." When a friend pointed out its similarity to Parson's work, Dando checked him out and fell in love.
"I'd never heard of him until then," he admits. "So I kinda of got into him backwards, which was good."
It seems fitting that Dando is such a big Parsons fan--they both share a penchant for bruised melancholy, aching melodies, and both were/have been dismissed for being flaky, rich-kid pretty boys with an insatiable appetite for bad living.
Which leads, albeit inadvertently, into Dando's image problems over the years. He's never been taken that seriously (at least in the States--the U.K. press has always been more forgiving). Indeed, it's safe to say that as well as being criminally underrated, he's all but despised in some quarters. To be fair, Dando's indulged in a fair amount of erratic behavior over the years, involving crack and smack binges, missed gigs, temper tantrums, an unfortunate period as Oasis' in-house tour monkey, and an LSD-induced breakdown. Plus: lost weekends that lasted two years, near-constant management hassles, and financial rip-offs.
And yet here's a guy with an embarrassingly rich back catalog, who appears effortlessly able to knock out three-minute peerless pop gems, and has a gift for hooks and melodies that most lesser talents would kill their first-born for. Unfortunately for Dando, he's never been able to shake off that pretty-boy slacker tag. He's been viewed with suspicion for being too lightweight, too pop, not "authentic" or "tortured" enough. This image was hardly helped when, at the height of his fame in the early '90s, he was pushed as the ultimate alterna-hunk, the grunge-lite poster boy.
"Yeah there was a whole weird Sean Cassidy type of thing going down then," he sighs wearily, "That would be my management looking for some serious short-term gain and not giving a fuck about me or anybody else. They were terrible. They were such fuckin' idiots."
Asked if he'd ever want to return to that level of fame, he gives a hollow laugh: "I don't really know. To be honest, I have much more fun now. I just remember basically just getting through shit back then, except for in the beginning. That was fun. But then it just got bigger and it became a case of, 'Whatever. Just get me fucking through this. I didn't give a fuck'--just really jaded y'know? Everyone pretty much goes through that as soon as they get some money in the bank. I just tried to get rid of it all as soon as possible, y'know?"
Nonetheless, Dando's still here, while many of his contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. He feels vindicated, he says, and insists he wouldn't have changed a thing.
"Nah, I mean there we were years ago playing in the basement, messing around, just trying to be like the Adverts or Minor Threat," he says. "And the next thing we knew, we'd turned it into a job. I mean, how cool is that?"
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