The Lemonheads were one of those bands not quite at the center of the '90s alternative movement but close enough to it to generate some pop culture name recognition and sell a few records. The band developed a devoted and passionate following that grew during those amazing years when alternative music flourished. Somehow I never got to hear anything by them except their cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson," which I didn't like very much.
Fast forward 16 years.
The Lemonheads' most famous album (dare I say classic) It's A Shame About Ray is being re-released in a remastered, expanded, deluxe package. I'm a decade and a half late, but I'm finally arriving to the Lemonheads' ball.
The first thing I learned when I opened the package? THAT'S WHERE JULIANA HATFIELD CAME FROM! Which, turns out not to be exactly true but it was a bit of a eureka moment. Hatfield fronted her own band, The Juliana Hatfield Trio, throughout the '90s. Her association with Dando and Lemonheads (in addition to her previous work) helped bring her some attention which in turn gave her solo career some momentum. That's another one of those "I know the name but not the music" figures for me.
Listening to the music is giving me some truly bizarre sensations. Music I never listened to before in my life is bringing back memories; or rather the feeling of memories. I don't know if I was this disaffected and disillusioned in 1993, but this record is making me think I was. I remember those years and I think I remember feeling like this. Was it the music that made me feel it or did the music reflect how I already felt? Probably a bit of both. Those are the lenses through which I process It's a Shame About Ray, and I've determined the kid who would have flipped out over this record is still inside me somewhere.
Rock and roll has always been a youth-centered medium. The way most superstar artists found their way to the top was by finding a way to connect to a young audience. Chuck Berry wrote about the teenage years better than anyone. Even though much has changed in the 60 years since Berry wrote his best songs, his insight into the mind of the American teenager are still some of the sharpest ever written. The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan — they all found their way into the hearts and minds of the young during turbulent times when youth culture felt empowered to change the world. The disco revolution of the '70s, while musically revolting, was all about dancing and having a good time. The punk movement later in the decade was all about teenage rebellion. The '80s glam metal scene was about hedonistic pursuit of pleasure and excess: sex, drugs, rock and roll. Think of it as disco without the dancing; the fashion was still bad but the music was, in some instances, marginally better.
The '90s tapped in to something different. The artifice of the preceding years was blasted off the map in the name of authenticity and earnestness. The alienation and awkwardness of adolescence were the driving force of the music; feelings that have been channeled countless ways through the decades.
In the '90s, you had the Kurt Cobain approach; rage turned inward was channeled and redirected outward in the visceral sounds of Nirvana. I connected with that, but I wasn't all that angry all the time. Listening to Lemonheads reminds me of another approach popular during the decade. Rather than raging against the injustice of it all, some bands made heroes out of losers and brought the popular to their knees. Sure everything sucked, but there was something romantic about the shit state of it all. There was a beauty to it, a poetry. Joe Pernice has a song on his Chappaquiddick Skyline record called "Theme To An Endless Bummer." That was the '90s. That's the Lemonheads.
A record I'd never heard has awakened all sorts of silly fragments of nostalgia in my head. Everything that's great about this record now was probably even greater then. I wish I could reach back in time and give my 19-year-old self this album and say, "You're going to thank me for this later."
If you were a Lemonhead fan back in the day, you should seriously consider upgrading your worn out copy of Ray for this new one. The bonus tracks added to the disc aren't all that revelatory for the casual fan, but they're nice to have. The DVD is filled with goodies and extras, again more geared towards the faithful followers of the band.
The real reason to buy this record again is to take a short vacation back to a different time and reconnect with the person you were for a few short years when it all seemed possible but none of it seemed probable.