A 2009 Lemonheads album of 70's covers strikes me as yet another necrophiliac stab by yesterday's news at reading the news from the previous day. Really, former unenthused forced-icon Evan Dando has a Gram Parsons complex? No way! Varshons opens with Parsons' "I Just Can't Take it Anymore" as if to underscore my assessment.
Thing is, though, this record is gorgeous in recording, performance and sentiment. Dando's voice is perfect; oaken and resonant. So what if a cover record is a most obvious move? Sometimes that obvious move is the right one. Kicks the shit out of any other Americana record I've heard so far this year. I don't know of a prettier version of a GG Allin song than turning "Layin' Up with Linda" into a spectral murder ballad. Adding on an extra layer of acid laced yak butter to the Cramps' (actually a Randy Alvey's) song "The Green Fuz" transforms bubblegum into a meal.
The Lemonheads have always had that knack, see their spot-on rendition of "Mrs. Robinson" that was their sole big hit; it was a painfully naked cover to coincide with the re-release of "The Graduate", foolish final-credits fluff and yet, the song sounds great with them singing it. This bit of minor alchemy happens all over Varsons; Sam Gopal's "Yesterlove" is lent a set of tablas and Dando's best Townes Van Zandt (even better than the one he exhibits on the relatively straight "Waitin' Around to Die") giving it a beguiling, lysergic Sinatra glow.
Varshons is not without its derailments: particularly the Beck treatment of "Dirty Robot" basically serving as a pedestal for Kate Moss' uninspired guest vocals. "Dandelion Seeds" by forgotten late-sixties meteorites July is treated reverently, but the affable song remains simply affable, even with the weird haunting "trip" interlude in the middle. Tracks like this point to Varshons' conception; Butthole Surfers madman and Texas psychedelia preservationist Gibby Haynes made Evan Dando a bunch of killer mixtapes over the years and the contact high finally overtook the former heartthrob. Haynes knew what he was doing; awesome as the Butthole Surfers can be, they are best at doing their own thing, while Dando and crew weave a Mavericks-grade thunderstorm into whoever-the-FuckEmos-were's "New Mexico."
I love this album for no other reason than they followed through on an idea that had been rolling around in my head for a while now: someone needs to render Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," a song I unabashedly adore in the original, as the singer-songwriter ballad that, in its heart, it is. I was sure Ryan Adams would get around to it, but the Lemonheads did a more delicate, elegiac job of it than I could have expected. Same with this whole album. Keep up the good work, keeping up other people's work.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com