ARTIST: The Lemonheads + ALBUM: Varshons 2 + LABEL: Fire Records + RELEASE DATE: FEB 8, 2019
It has been 10 years since Evan Dando’s Lemonheads released their last album. Produced by the Butthole Surfers Gibby Haynes, Varshons was a covers record that featured songs originally performed by everyone from GG Allin to Leonard Cohen. Dando is back a decade later with Varshons 2. Yes, it’s another collection of covers. I did a quick run through the Lemonheads discography and there’s only one album that didn’t have at least one cover. That doesn’t include Dando’s one solo album, Baby I’m Bored, that also had a cover. Cover songs are a tricky thing. There are cover bands that play note-for-note covers of popular songs. And there are artists who re-do a song according to their own vision. Also a tribute to the original, these covers that re-think, re-arrange, and re-purpose a song stand out on the artistic spectrum. There shouldn’t be any shame in doing a cover, if you do it right.
This brings us to Varshons 2. Featuring songs by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Yo La Tengo, Paul Westerberg, Lucinda Williams, among others, Dando aims to put his stamp on these songs, many of which would seem untouchable. The album opens with a brief, languid cover of the Yo La’s “Can’t Forget You.” Delicate and sublime, it’s a shame it’s only two minutes long. “Settle Down Like Rain” (The Jayhawks) opens with a fuzzy guitar part before it settles into a quintessential Lemonheads acoustic-driven pop song. Backed by a simple drum beat and minimal bass line, it could have easily gone on 1992’s It’s A Shame About Ray. “Old Man Blank” (The Bevis Frond) follows in a similar vein, with a synth melody opening things up. Dando’s voice is front and center and the instrumentation is restrained up until a sloppy electric guitar pops up for a solo. Tracks like “Things” (Paul Westerberg), “Now and Then” (Natural Child), and “TAQN” (The Eyes) follow this formula.
“Abandoned” (Lucinda Williams) also follows this full-band template, albeit at mid-tempo. However, the guitar solo is more soulful than the slapdash solos on the others, and the song excels as a result. “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” (John Prine) is a stand-out track. Just Dando and an acoustic guitar, his voice sounds terrific and perfectly intoned to the lyrics. Fans of Prine’s original will surely appreciate his take on it here. Similarly, “Round Here” (Florida Georgia Line) is Dando and an acoustic, only this time with some back-up singers adding depth to the recording.
“Magnet” (NRBQ) mixes things up further while staying true to the pop-sensibilities of The Lemonheads. A feral, flat-piano solo has a devil-may-care charm that fits the track perfectly. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this one in a commercial or relationship comedy sitcom. “Unfamiliar” (The GiveGoods) shows Dando flirting with reggae to surprisingly effective results. Without a doubt, the most dance-able song on the album, “Unfamiliar” fits comfortably among the typical Lemonheads pop and country covers while adding some diversity to the overall collection of songs. “Straight to You” (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) may be comprised of fewer instruments than the Bad Seeds original, but it’s essentially the same arrangement. Dando’s voice sounds strong and confident, making the sincerity of this unabashed love song palpable and pure. The album closes with The Eagles “Take it Easy.” There’s nothing remarkable to speak of here. It’s well executed, but it sounds like Dando and his pals at a backyard party. Which is totally cool, but I don’t care if I never hear it again.
Varshons 2 is a good record. There’s nothing jaw-dropping. There’s not one song that’s better than the original. But, it is all unmistakably The Lemonheads. If you’re a fan, you’ll dig this collection. And if you’re a fan of any of the originals, these covers are worth giving a listen. If nothing else, you’ll admire Dando for putting his own stamp on them.
– J. Kevin Lynch