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Forgive and forget
Evan Dandoís slow and steady return
BY MATT ASHARE

" Come back Evan, all is forgiven. " Itís been almost four years since Rolling Stone changed its tune on one of alterna-popís more notorious lost souls of the í90s with those six words tacked onto the end of a fairly positive review of what was then the new Foo Fighters CD, There Is Nothing Left To Lose (RCA). And that wouldnít have been a bad title for an Evan Dando comeback album in 1999. After all, by that point the one-time bubblegrunge bad boy with the smooth blond voice and straight blond hair had exhausted most of his artistic capital as the leader of the Lemonheads, a mutable trio whoíd burst out of Boston with a punkish cover of Suzanne Vegaís " Luka " just as MTVís Headbangerís Ball was being eclipsed by the Lollapalooza-loving alternative nation.

It was Dandoís devil-may-care attitude mixed with a sensitive boyish charm that made " Luka " such a compelling crossover ó jaded punks heard it as an irreverent and amusing send-up of singer-songwriter schmaltz à la the Dickiesí " Knights in White Satin " whereas all those alienated teens who worshipped Kurt Cobain as a damaged saint found an undertone of empathy in Dandoís plangent reading of Vegaís child-abuse vignette. The song swung both ways. But it also helped sow the seeds of Dandoís demise: its easy success on college radio would come to mark the Lemonheads as a joky cover band. Pressed for a commercial-radio single after the 1992 release of the otherwise flawless Itís a Shame About Ray, Atlantic persuaded the trio to record a less compelling cover of " Mrs. Robinson. " The track quickly found its way onto new pressings of Ray, a move that, when paired with Evanís controversial coverboy feature in Interview magazine, raised issues about the bandís artistic integrity ó something that mattered in the early years of the alternative revolution, when the only thing worse than punk pretenders flying fake flannel flags was an Eagles reunion.

Unlike Cobain, who was ashamed of his own drug use and went to great lengths to play the part of the scruffy, anti-establishment punk-rocker, Dando seemed to embrace the trappings of rock-stardom even before he was a bona fide rock star. If Kurtís In Utero was a veiled chronicle of the horrors of addiction, Dando was happy to make jingle-jangle ditties like " My Drug Buddy " (later shortened to " Buddy " by Atlantic so as not to offend Wal-Mart), party with Rick James (on " Rick James Style, " from 1993ís Come On Feel the Lemonheads), and joke openly about smoking crack (as he did in a Phoenix interview with Brett Milano in 1996, after the release of car button cloth). He dabbled in films ó a token appearance in Reality Bites, a bigger role in Heavy. And in the wake of Cobainís death, a photo of Dando and Courtney Love in bed, both looking wasted, turned up in the New York tabloids.

But the real proof was in the spotty follow-ups to Itís A Shame About Ray. Sure, each album had a catchy single or two, but the one from Come On Feel the Lemonheads, " Into Your Arms, " was a silly little love song that wasnít even written by Dando ó itís credited to Robyn St. Claire. Ditto for car button cloth: " The Outdoor Type, " which seemed to reflect Dandoís healthy capacity for making fun of himself, was in fact written by his long-time songwriting collaborator, Tom Morgan. By that point, it almost didnít matter. Dando had become an alterna-joke; there were even mean-spirited fanzines dedicated to him like Evan Dando Must Die. Rather than going out in a blaze of glory or a tabloid drug-bust scandal, the Lemonheads just fizzled. The last time I saw them was on a double bill at the Tweeter Center with Buffalo Tom. Dando kept starting songs in the wrong key and had to rely on second-guitarist John Strohm, formerly of the Blake Babies, to guide him through half a dozen tunes. It was a pathetic sight.

The Evan Dando whoís headed to the Coolidge Corner Theatre this Wednesday to support his first full-length solo disc, Baby Iím Bored (Bar/None), is something of a new man. Heís married, and if nothing else, that seems to have kept him out of hotel-room beds with Courtney Love. And if heís not exactly a reformed prodigal son, he at least seems to accept responsibility for some of the missteps of his past.

" The Lemonheads was just something that happened, " he explains over the phone from a hotel room in NYC where heís set up shop for a day of phone interviews, even though he has an apartment of his own in the city. " It was a whirlwind thing. We were in the right place at the right time . . . so we did well. Nearly all of it was great fun. And we were trying our hardest. We just didnít have our shit together. I mean, I used to think if I could get three songs that I really, really, really loved on a Lemonheads record, then I could go take more drugs and fuck off to Australia or whatever. "

All the same, heís not too thrilled about being " forgiven " by Rolling Stone. " I donít want to be forgiven because I didnít do anything wrong. Thereís been a lot of talk about forgiving me, and Iím very confused by that because . . . whatever I did do was such a long time ago that I can forgive myself for all of it. . . . I just didnít know any better. And if other people canít forgive me for posing for stupid pictures and doing that stupid cover of ĎMrs. Robinson,í then it doesnít bother me, because Iíve gotten over it myself. My attitude is that I want to keep myself healthy and sane. And the only way I can do that is to make my music in my own little bubble, without caring about what happens outside that bubble. "

Building that bubble has been a long process for Dando. The last time he played a theater show in town ó at the Brattle in October of 2000 ó he seemed poised to launch a solo career. Although it was a loose and casual acoustic set, he breathed new life into Lemonheads nuggets like " My Drug Buddy, " " The Outdoor Type, " and " Ride with Me, " a tune from 1990ís Lovey that he wrote by himself. He even broke out a couple of promising new tunes, including one, " The Same Thing You Thought Hard About Is the Same Thing I Can Live Without, " that turned up on an import-only Australian release, the two-CD Live at the Brattle Theatre/Griffith Sunset EP. He dubbed it a " Tribute to Hank Williams, " and indeed it found him veering off in a more countrified direction, perhaps inspired by a moving duet with Juliana Hatfield, " $1,000 Wedding, " that they recorded for the 1999 album Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (Almo). Rumors of a full country Dando album circulated for a time, but in spite of a few one-off gigs here and there, he didnít seem all that eager to be back in the spotlight.

Part of the problem is that his best material has always come out of collaborations with other songwriters. And Baby Iím Bored was very much a process of Evan hooking up with various partners in crime, including two young Bens heís spent the past couple years playing shows with. Ben Lee wrote one of the new albumís most arresting tracks, " All My Life, " an acoustic-based number centered on the confessional chorus " All my life, I thought I needed all the things I didnít need at all/All my life, I thought I wanted all the things I didnít want at all. " Given his history, the song is almost custom-built for Dando, and he sings it as if he meant it. Ben Kweller may not have any songwriting credits on the disc, but he was instrumental in getting Dando on track to complete the album.

" It took some kicking in the ass by some young Bens to get me moving again, " Dando half jokes. " I was just by myself and maybe overthinking things. I wrote a bunch of songs, but I just wasnít feeling it. Ben Lee and Ben Kweller were both like, ĎGet off your ass, Evan. Come to my house and weíll write a song . . . donít worry about it so much, just come over and weíll write a song.í  "

Baby Iím Bored also took Dando out to Tucson, home of the Giant Sand collective of guitarist Howe Gelb, bassist Joey Burns, and drummer John Convertino. They back him on two of the discís rootsier tunes, the simple country-folk numbers " Hard Drive " and " In the Grass All Wine Colored. " A good deal of the initial work on the album was done closer to home with help from former Spacehog guitarist Royston Langdon, Come guitarist Chris Brokaw, Ben Lee, and producer Bryce Goggin. But the project finally came together in LA, when Dando hooked up with multi-instrumental studio wiz Jon Brion, who co-wrote the discís hard-driving opening track, " Repeat, " which bears welcome shades of Itís A Shame About Ray, and produced four tunes that he also helped write.

" Meeting Jon Brion was a big boost for me, " Dando admits. " We were able to write songs together right away. In the end, though, I looked at the record as me walking down a really, really, really long beach and finding 12 shells to bring home with me to put on the sink in the bathroom. I picked up a lot of shells along the way, and threw a lot of shells away, but I finally found the 12 that I wanted. And the 12 songs that I finally found all fit together on the sink in the bathroom of that imaginary beach bungalow. "

In other words, Dandoís no longer happy with the write-three-songs-and-fuck-off-to-Australia method of recording. And it shows. Baby Iím Bored isnít always fully engaging, but itís never boring, and it doesnít have that tossed-off quality that too much of the Lemonheadsí post-Ray material suffered from. How well Dando will handle his emergence as a solo artist remains an open question. But so far he seems to be on the right track. " The things I did before was just me scratching around, trying to do music. Using my own name frees me up to just go and find the best players for the best songs. And thatís why I really do think of the new album as the beginning of my real musical career. "

Evan Dando performs this Wednesday, April 23, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard Street in Brookline; call (617) 864-EAST.

Issue Date: April 17 - 24, 2003
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