The covers album is traditionally either or both an indicator of complete creative stasis, or of the onset of monumental hubris. It’s why any credible list of the very worst records ever made must include several such artefacts: Annie Lennox’s Medusa, The Beautiful South’s Golddiggas, Tori Amos’s Strange Little Girls and, of course, Duran Duran’s Thank You, eternally and vexingly memorable for a reading of Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke” as belief-beggaring as it was description-defying.
Where the Lemonheads are concerned, however, there is greater basis for optimism than usual in this realm of endeavour. Though the project was allegedly inspired by the mixtapes that Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers has been making for Dando for some years, a knack for the well-chosen and deftly executed cover version has been a defining motif of the Lemonheads’ entertaining, if erratic, career: the witty, punky rebore of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” on 1989’s Lick, the glorious, exuberant tear-up of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum” on 1990’s Favourite Spanish Dishes, the lovely, careworn sigh of the “Hair!” excerpt “Frank Mills” that rounded off 1992’s classic It’s A Shame About Ray – at least until another cover, a somewhat ungainly bull-at-a-gate charge at Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs Robinson”, was tacked onto later pressings.
The Lemonheads were great at cover versions because they – unlike a wearisome quantity of their indie rock fellows – genuinely respected and admired the source materials, rather than using the original songs as props for their own “subversive” cleverness. That mixture of empathy and adventure is at large throughout Varshons, recorded by a Lemonheads lineup of Dando, bass player Vess Ruhtenburg and drummer Devon Ashley, joined on lead guitar by John Perry, on loan from The Only Ones. It is, by definition, a mixed bag, but the miscues are at least audacious and interesting, and when the Lemonheads get it right, they’re interpreters without many peers.
Dando eases himself in gently, starting off with Gram Parsons’ “I Just Can’t Take It Anymore”. This is familiar material for Dando, Parsons a career-long touchstone. Dando covered Parsons’ “Brass Buttons” on the Lemonheads’ 1990 album, Lovey, and duetted with Juliana Hatfield on “$1,000 Wedding” on the 1999 Parsons tribute, Return Of The Grievous Angel. During Dando’s wilderness years in the mid-to-late-’90s, he also looked a decent bet to follow his idol into a wretchedly early grave.
Dando’s graceful delivery of this melancholy shuffle, echoing Parsons’ deceptively diffident, conversational vocal, is just one more reason to be glad that Dando chose to retreat from the abyss into which Parsons stepped. When Lemonheads covers have worked in the past, they’ve worked best when Dando has made the least effort to meet the material on its terms – when, that is, he has simply performed them as if they’d been Lemonheads songs all along.
The rule holds true throughout Varshons. GG Allin’s brutally nihilist murder ballad “Layin’ Up With Linda” now sounds like an outtake from It’s A Shame About Ray – save, perhaps, for a pure “Another Girl, Another Planet” solo from Perry. Wire’s “Fragile” shapes up startlingly beautifully as a typical Dando acoustic country-pop trundle. The choices from the catalogues of his fellow consumptive troubadours – Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around To Die” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, the latter abetted by Liv Tyler on backing vocals – are masterly negotiations of the fine line between modesty and confidence.
It’s when the Lemonheads reach beyond their natural palette that unpretty results occur. The version of Arling & Cameron’s “Dirty Robot” is a dreary electro-glam trudge, redeemed not one whit by the character-free vocal stylings of Kate Moss. July’s obscure ’60s psychedelic nugget “Dandelion Seeds” is reduced to sounding eerily and unpleasantly like a Lenny Kravitz demo. And not even Dando’s ever-more-endearingly weatherbeaten vocal can rescue Linda Perry’s emetic “Beautiful” from the talons of Christina Aguilera.
At best, Varshons is a joy forever. Even at worst, it’s a forgiveable, even likeable, labour of love.
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