The Lemonheads - It's A Shame About Ray
Contemporaneous with the grunge scene in the US at the time, the Lemonheads skilfully avoided direct association with it. There is more powerpop than punk in this and it presents an interesting counterweight to the more oppressive sounding grunge. But it had taken them three previous albums to get it right, and what propelled them into the limelight was a cover version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson", apparently released to coincide with the release of the "The Graduate" on DVD. On this CD, this track is included, but it was left off the original. That track has been largely slated - Dando himself hated it - but I feel it represents a side of the band not often seen on the album - a fun side. It is something which you could put together in five minutes and have a lot of fun doing.
Putting that track aside, what you are left with is an album of short, sharp songs which convey a mixture of emotions and observations without ever becoming overwhelming. The album is short - all thirteen tracks coming in at a little over thirty minutes in total - and this brevity leaves you feeling unfulfilled, with a sense that there could have been more to say that was left unsaid.
The opening track, "Rockin' Stroll" sets out the band's stall clearly. Concise and taut, it is a confident little number which is as catchy as anything else on the album. And soon you are drawn into a series of brief scenarios where a brief vignette emerges, but you are left wondering what lies behind the door which has been briefly opened for you to glimpse inside and then firmly shut again. For instance, who is Ray? Who is Frank Mills and why did he borrow $2 from the singer and his girlfriend?
The album then fairly sprints through a number of these short vignettes with tracks like "Confetti", "Hanna and Gabi" and "Kitchen". The undoubted highlight of the album is the title track which has a melody and a chorus which will stick in your head long after you have heard the song. But if you view this album as a rather superficial jaunt through half an hour of up-tempo powerpop then you will be missing the essence of what this is about. Powerpop this may be, but this is not about dating girls and falling in love. This has a much darker side.
For a start, "Confetti" is about a guy who seems unable to enter into a commitment in a relationship. "Bit Part" turns the same theme on its head where the protagonist is unable to get the girl of his desire to open up to him. These songs may stand on the edge of the usual powerpop themes, but the same cannot be said of others. "Rudderless" is laced through with regret for a life wasted on addiction. This theme is continued on songs like "My Drug Buddy" and "Ceiling Fan in My Spoon".
There is depth here, but you have to look for it, and once you have found it the songs' and album's brevity does not give you the opportunity to explore it further. This album marked the high point of the Lemonheads' career. After this, Evan Dando slid further into addiction, the band lost all coherence and their popularity began to wane. But despite this, It's a Shame about Ray provides an opportunity to look at what the independent music scene in America was turning out at the height of grunge without being grunge. It is worth looking at.
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