Evan Dando isn’t exactly a household name. He’s stuck somewhere between obscurity and indie cult hero, and has been for sometime despite the fact that he continues to tour and release records under the Lemonheads moniker. Part of the reason, though, that he hasn’t become a bigger deal is because we’ve been trying to make him something he’s not. Either that, or we’ve been waiting for him to become a different version of what he is. Or both.
It’s a Shame About Ray is probably the best document with which to discuss this. The disc itself is, in some ways, a metaphor for how we’ve looked at Dando over the years. From the get-go, the label started changing this thing to get it to us in the best way they see fit. “My Drug Buddy,” the beautifully overcast emotional center of this stoney record, got changed to “Buddy” on the packaging because, you know, no one wanted to mention drugs on an album cover in 1992. Not only that, but almost immediately the label reissued the record with the band’s cover of “Mrs. Robinson” tacked on as a bonus track. Nevermind that it throws off the rest of the record, and strips “Frank Mills” (a much better cover) of its charm as an album closer, it’s just plain unnecessary because a) it’s a pretty rote version and b) if the band wanted it on the record, they would have put it there in the first place.
While the label was busy reshaping the album, the rest of us were trying to figure out what to do with Dando. There was, of course, the poster-boy image, Dando as the irritatingly good-looking indie frontman. But more than that, we had Dando the druggy romantic. In a world where we just fell hook-line-sinker for Kurt Cobain, there should have been a bigger place for someone like Dando. He is, in plenty of ways, the more approachable, less misanthropic version of Cobain’s brooding persona. He didn’t lash out at the audience with blasts of angst, but rather welcomed us into the haze he used to distanced himself from what was hurting him. These songs, from the everyman vibe of the title track to the wandering gauze of “My Drug Buddy” to the pleading heartache of “Bit Part,” deliver a smudged approximation of deep emotion rather than pounding us with overwrought confession.
The album shakes us awake sometimes — see the charging “Rockin’ Stroll” or Juliana Hatfield’s screaming intro to “Bit Part” — but for the most part it forgets us and just sways away on its own melodies. It’s an album about getting lost, about losing identity. “Bit Part” is all about hovering anonymously in the background, while even the title song (with the mention of someone named Ray) starts with Dando’s admission “I’ve never been too good with names.” There are other names here, like the title girl in “Allison’s Starting to Happen” or “Frank Mills.” But the former comes off as a force of nature, someone so forceful in their charm that the singer gets swallowed up in it, while the latter is borrowed from the musical Hair, and sounds like an earnest reimagining of someone else’s words and no more.
So while Cobain may have berated us with his raw nerve — yes, to brilliant effect — Dando’s approach was a good deal subtler, and often involved obscuring himself in favor of the feel of the song. Which isn’t to say he was some overly maudlin navel-gazer. You can hear his confidence come through here, when he smirks over the pain on “Rudderless,” for example, or belts out bubbly, sundrenched melodies on the deceptively bright “Confetti.” Perhaps it is this confidence that kept us at a distance from Dando, since the confidence coupled with his looks could come off as conceit.
But no matter the reason, our perception of Dando has kept us from confirming It’s a Shame About Ray as the great pop record it is. That’s not to say we’ve ignored it outright, and Dando is no pop martyr. But this is an album that’s been relegated to the second or third tier of notable indie-pop records, and it deserves more. It’s aged plenty well, and outshone its better-selling follow-up (but lesser product) Come On Feel the Lemonheads. And it’s done so by being unabashed about its intentions. The Lemonheads had started as a pop-punk outfit in Boston and, after their first major label album, Lovey, floundered, they left the crunch behind to bring Dando’s sweet melodies out into the light of day. There was no need to obscure these behind a wall of college-rock fuzz. As much as the Lemonheads feel like a sort of quintessential ’90s act, they were outsiders in their own time, and got drowned out by the waves of distortion resonating out from the Northwest.
But the sound on It’s a Shame About Ray has outlasted all the brooding yarblers, and maybe Dando knows it, since he continues to truck the album out on tour and play it in its entirety. When he does, he leaves “Mrs. Robinson” off the list, and “My Drug Buddy” gets called “My Drug Buddy,” and Dando plays through it all with that smirking grin on his face, quietly enjoying himself. This is who he is, the guy who got stoned a lot as a younger man and made a great record 20 years ago, full of charming and heartbroken pop songs. Songs that still ring true.