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The Lemonheads / It's a Shame About Ray / Atlantic (1992)

AUDIO: It's a Shame About Ray
This is sort of an interesting experiment. Take an album that you played constantly, every damn day at least once for a period of months, put aside for at least ten years, and then give it another spin. As biologists tell us, every cell in your body has been replaced, including those important ones in your brain and ears. You've probably had one or two major life experiences in the interim -- getting married, say, or having a child, or becoming the world's longest-running Jeopardy winner (okay, this hasn't happened yet). You're not the same person. And that means, oddly enough, that it's not the same record.

A couple of weeks ago, talking to Dina Waxman from Space Mtn, I mentioned my enthusiasm for The Lemonheads' 1992 It's a Shame About Ray, a record I remember as almost perfectly balancing rock and pop, hard and soft. It was important enough to become a point of contention in one of my best early-1990s friendships when I taped this record for a buddy who had just turned gay, and who returned it summarily, saying, "It's all about heterosexual love, and I can't relate." What would this record, so closely aligned with the early days of my marriage, the beginnings of my freelance writing business, my little apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, my endless loops in Central Park, a pirate show called "Radio Free NY" which ran only between 6:00 and 9:00 a.m. on weekdays until the authorities shut it down -- what would a record that evoked all these forgotten experiences mean to me now?

It sounds a little thin these days.

It's a Shame About Ray was, of course, the album that broke The Lemonheads big, the source of all those magazine covers (remember the Spin with Dando tongue-kissing that model sometime in the early 1990s?) and a "Sexiest Man Alive" nod for the band's lead singer in 1993. It was the band's second for Atlantic, the one that featured Juliana Hatfield on bass and Dave Ryan on drums. Terms like Gen-X and slacker seem antiquated now, but they were damned near invented for this band's loose-limbed, lackadaisical approach to poppish punk. A drug record in a way that just wouldn't be possible anymore, it included a song all about scoring -- "My Drug Buddy", which was subsequently renamed "My Buddy" for mainstream acceptability, though its lyrics weren't changed at all. Its charm, even after all these years, exists in its laid-back, don't-give-a-fuck-ness, yet this record was pushed commercially with relentless ambition. Depending on when you bought the album, it may or may not include a cover of "Mrs. Robinson" (mine doesn't), the MTV-friendly single that was not on the original pressing, was added to a second run, and was later removed from a reissue at Dando's urging.

The disc starts with the short, spiralling energy of "Rockin' Stroll", a quick-tempo'd romp with pounding drums and abbreviated guitar riffs. My friend was absolutely right -- it is, like all the other songs on this disc, a love song, all about the euphoric first phase of infatuation, when you are "thrilled to be in the same post code." There's a little more ambiguity in "Confetti", with its "kinda shoulda sorta woulda" lyrics, along with a stronger pop hook, but the subject matter is still adolescent love, the perfect soundtrack for hanging at the mall.

The title track is the album's best song, all chiming guitars and slacked-out melancholy. In a good-natured but sort of addled Rolling Stone interview, Dando explained that he'd gotten the idea for the song from an acquaintance in Australia who couldn't remember names and called everyone "Ray". So, the song is about feeling bad for everybody, without actually getting to know them enough to understand what their problems are -- the sort of baked and listless altruism that makes perfect sense when you're 17. Still, it's a really good pop song, all shimmer in the chords with an unexpected kick in the guitar lick that launches the verse. The chorus is sadder, sweeter and more memorable than you'd expect -- you can't listen to it more than once without humming along.

It says a lot about It's a Shame About Ray that its single most romantic song is about drugs. The lyrics to "My Drug Buddy" are lovingly delivered, slowly paced, nostalgic, arranged exactly as you'd arrange a love song, but they're only partly about a girl. "She's coming over / we'll go out walking / make a call on the way / she's in the phone booth now / I'm looking in / there comes a smile on her face / there's still some of the same stuff we got yesterday..." it goes -- and it's a love song, sure, but the object of that love comes in little plastic bags.

Or at least some of the time. The jagged, jangling "Bit Part" ("I want a bit part in your life... a walk-on would be fine") is about a commitment-shy foray into romantic love, and while "Alison's Starting to Happen", the disc's most raucous, punk-leaning cut, is a sweet and sloppy wet kiss to its ten-pierced, mohawked heroine. Sometimes, Dando's songs even switch genders, as in the album's folky closer "Frank Mills" ("I love him... but it embarrasses me"), as if the whole subject of love is too polymorphous to be constrained by personal experience.

At just under half an hour long, It's a Shame About Ray is fun all the way through. There's not much to think about here, but the melodies are bouncy, the tempos quick and the harmonies (mostly supplied by Ms. Hatfield) infectious. It's a careless pleasure, not weighed down too much with lasting meaning or intellectual challenge, but a pleasure nonetheless. It is definitely not as good as I once thought it was, but it's still enjoyable. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try the same experiment with Nevermind.

-- Jennifer Kelly



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