Evan Dando—the Lemonheads’ pouty, aggravatingly photogenic singer and only constant member—suffers a strange curse. Not a lack of attention or talent, certainly, nor the classic dilemma of wrong place, wrong time. Dando’s plight in 2006 is more dire: His early celebrity as alt-rock’s consummate cover boy made him such a bright star that it created a kind of flash blindness. Back when he was punking Simon and Garfunkel, we saw so much of him that today he’s all but invisible.
Opener “Black Gown” is a nonsensical if inoffensive banger, so effortless Dando might well have written it on the john; the record that follows is as catchy and unabashedly shtick-free as anything released this year. With the Descendents’ rhythm section, “Become the Enemy” (written by drummer Bill Stevenson) moves to Toto’s “Rosanna” shuffle, while geographical Dando tunes like “Pittsburgh” and “Poughkeepsie” feature balmy hooks to rival the1992 breakout It’s a Shame About Ray. Perhaps the political commentary on “Let’s Just Laugh”—regarding “a Texan stranger with a rope and straight razor . . . getting impatient for something major”—proves that these guys don’t have Crossfire chops. (For better or for worse, that tune is this century’s “Big Gay Heart.”) But Dando nonetheless emerges from Lemonheads as a powerpop elder statesman and a suddenly appropriate Paul Westerberg labelmate.
But how the devil did those two fairly unlikely bedfellows find themselves in the bafflingly unlikely flophouse of Vagrant Records—a label revered/derided for popularizing emo blowups like Get Up Kids, Saves the Day, and Dashboard Confessional? Maybe it’s as simple as the revelation Westerberg describes on the Replacements’ “Alex Chilton,” back when Paul himself was still a punk growing out of his acrid tastes: “Children by the millions sing . . . I’m in love with that song.”
If you squint your ears, the Lemonheads’ first record, 1987’s Hate Your Friends, has few such lovable songs, and there’s nearly enough snarl to bring to mind the skate punk that Vagrant cranked out when it started. If Dando quickly outgrew such noisy rebellion through the ’90s, Vagrant’s similar evolution—from punk to pop—reflects a much wider sea change. These days Vagrant could reintroduce Dando to millions, even if those millions are the kid brothers and sisters of those who knew him back in the day and have since tried to forget. After planting the punked-out post-hardcore seeds of early emo (see: Get Up Kids, 1999), Vagrant has since grown into a powerpop powerhouse (see: Get Up Kids, 2004), along the way evolving from a record label that issued ollie-accompanying music to a record company that could influence a nation and shape the tastes of a Vans-wearing generation. (We’ll see if they can pull this off with their other idiosyncratic 2006 release: the beer-chugging, nostalgia-riffing Hold Steady.) Like Westerberg’s children’s millions, Vagrant’s champions are increasingly in love with the pop song.
Can these new Lemonheads deliver? On “Steve’s Boy,” one of the record’s most cleverly crafted tunes (it’s also a Stevenson tune, oddly enough), an appropriately disillusioned punk underdog admits to his dad that he knows he “can’t make you love me,” but he’s quick to back it up with a promise: “I can’t make you well/I can’t make you love me/But I’m not leaving here without you.” The chorus is so sweet that you can’t help but want him to stay; you’re in love with that song.
The Lemonheads play Irving Plaza Friday night, irvingplaza.com.