It's a shame Judge Erich Asperschlager can't think of anything funny to write for this blurb.
"It's a shame about Ray/
-- from "It's a Shame About Ray"
Back in college, I was in a band and some girl told me I sounded like the lead singer of the Lemonheads. Fast forward a decade, and in one of life's least outrageous twists, I get the chance to review the Rhino "Collector's Edition" of the Lemonheads' breakthrough 1992 album It's a Shame About Ray—released in advance of the band's upcoming ninth studio album.
Since Ray is something you'll end up putting on repeat anyway, why not try the following three-step experiment: First, listen to the CD through track 12. Congratulations. You've just heard the album as the Lemonheads originally released it. The second time through, pretend you've got the 1993 version and listen through track 13—the band's popular cover of the Simon & Garfunkel classic "Mrs. Robinson," recorded to promote the re-release of The Graduate and included on subsequent pressings of Ray. Finally, play the entire CD, including the new bonus tracks—lo-fi demo versions of nine songs from the album, plus the B-side "Shaky Ground." Well done. You are now free to listen to whatever the heck you want.
With its catchy melodies, drug-inspired lyrics, and laid back vocals courtesy of long-haired frontman hunk Evan Dando (my alleged vocal doppelgänger), Ray is a prime example of jangly early-'90s alterna-pop. Written primarily in Australia, it captures the aimless hopefulness of youth, and shows that though the Lemonheads (Dando, drummer David Ryan, and bassist Juliana Hatfield) might not be going anywhere in particular, they sure know how to get there fast. In its original form, It's a Shame About Ray clocked in at just under 30 minutes.
The album begins with two out-and-out rockers: "Rocking Stroll," sung from the point of view of a baby in a stroller; and the catchy, tumbling "Confetti," with the repeated lyric "He kinda shoulda sorta woulda loved her if he could've." The album then settles into the wistfully hummable title track, inspired by an Australian acquaintance who called everyone he met "Ray." "Rudderless" and "My Drug Buddy" are about being young and on drugs, while the sparkling "The Turnpike Down" has lyrics as obscure as those of "Bit Part" are sledge-hammer clear. "Alison's Starting to Happen," inspired by Smudge drummer Alison Galloway's reaction to taking ecstasy, is perhaps the album's most direct love song. "Hannah and Gabi," with its countrified slide guitar, marks the album's final tonal shift, moving quickly from weaker efforts "Kitchen" and "Ceiling Fan in My Spoon" towards the closing song—Evan Dando's stripped down, gender bent cover of "Frank Mills," from hippie musical Hair.
Though the bonus tracks on disc one are worthy additions to the set—if slightly disappointing for just being alternate versions of songs already available on the CD—the big draw is the bonus DVD: a re-release of the previously VHS-only "Two Weeks in Australia." It's a 45-minute mix of music videos (including the "It's a Shame About Ray" video starring Johnny Depp), live performances, and handheld camcorder footage of the band and their manager hanging out with various people. In addition to seven cuts from the album, the film also includes the songs "Ride With Me," "Being Around," "Half the Time," and "It's About Time."
Whether you should buy this set depends on how big of a Lemonheads fan you are. If, like me, you're new to the band, this collector's edition is worth buying as the best available CD version of the album. That said, nothing on the bonus DVD is essential for new fans, so if you don't mind not having a physical disc, you might want to buy the cheaper download-only version through the digital music store of your choice.
Recommending the set to casual Lemonheads fans who own previous versions of the album is far trickier. The bonus content isn't necessarily worth an upgrade, unless you find the idea of remastered tracks irresistible, in which case I'd still recommend the above-mentioned digital download route.
Hardcore fans, though, will want to pick it up. It would have been nice to see Rhino stretch the bonus content, but the added acoustic demos are different enough from the album tracks to warrant a listen, and "Two Weeks in Australia" on DVD should excite completists tired of dragging out their dusty VCRs every time they want to see Evan Dando lolling about on the green grass of an Australian "paddock."
The biggest problem with the DVD is that it looks, and sounds, like a VHS release. It's probably too much to expect Rhino to give "Two Weeks" the same remastered treatment as the CD, but the difference in quality is noticeable. The DVD has another problem (again likely alleviated by fandom): Evan Dando just isn't that interesting to listen to. Female fans might argue it's more about the watching than the listening, but Dando's druggy vacuousness supports my feeling that just because musicians write great songs doesn't mean they're entertaining off stage.
It's a Shame About Ray hails from a simpler time, when Melons were Blind and cola was clear. As a slice of early '90s rock, it stands up with the best of the era. If you don't own the album and are willing to pay a little more for the most complete Ray package, or are a long-time fan excited about demos and "Two Weeks in Australia" on DVD, by all means buy this set. You won't be disappointed. Others are free to give the collector's edition a pass in favor of a cheaper (legal) option. Just make sure you give this minor classic a listen.
Not a shame, and certainly not guilty.
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