At the tail of 1992 The Lemonheads were a huge deal in the world of alternative music. It’s A Shame About Ray was near the top of the year-end lists of most music magazines and the critical acclaim for the once-proud post-hardcore punks turned acoustic pop starlets was, in a rare occurrence, backed up by big sales and widespread popularity based on the band’s abysmal rendition of ‘Mrs Robinson’ (not a track originally featured on the album but included post-hit).
As they rode the crest of a wave of fame that would reach its peak with the following year’s stunning Come On Feel The Lemonheads, songwriter Evan Dando spent a good bit of time in his adopted home of Australia and it’s there, in Bondi, that he took stock of his next set of songs and cut what he refers to as a $53 album (50 on the walkman, 3 on the tape) as a gift for their road manager of the time Stephen Pavlovic. Nearly 20 years later these rare, raw one-take tunes make up the Hotel Sessions and capture a magic-hour time for Dando that he’d rarely return to in the interim.
It’s a tantalising record giving brief, cracked insights into Dando’s ideas for what would ultimately make up the bulk of Come On Feel. His introduction to ‘The Great Big No’ as a song about disappointment and death is a small surprise considering its soaring, sweet structure and the way it would ultimately explode with energy at the front of Come On. At other times his descriptions are a little more on the nose. We all know ‘It’s About Time’ is a devotional about his long-time love, the Blake Babies’ Juliana Hatfield, and while that may not be new information, the stripped solo version he plays here makes the heart ache even heavier by virtue of her backing vocal absence.
One of many collaborations with Tom Morgan ‘Rest Assured’ is a stand-out moment of ragged, rumpled, stumbling, tumbling pop glory; while ‘Into Your Arms’ is a honey-warm strum of pure love and innocence that Dando apparently prefers to the full album version. He’s right to do so: it’s beautiful. The song Dando introduces as ‘Her Guitar’, which became ‘Down About It’, still boasts a stunning sugary chord change that you can almost taste – and with the distant sound of a motorbike revving as the tape rolls on into the chorus it couldn’t be any more evocative.
There are mis-steps of course. ‘Style’ is a waste of time, as ever, and the previously unreleased ‘Superhero’ feels like Lemonheads by numbers, while its unheard counterpart ‘So the Story Goes’ – a composition by then-bassist and Godstar leader Nic Dalton – is no more than a half-remembered Gram Parsons tribute. There is undeniable charm and grace to the hummed guitar parts, the strange synchronicity of outside sounds committed to tape as part of songs that would go on to be polished and fleshed out almost beyond recognition, and while there isn’t a “great” performance here (Dando’s voice is hesitant throughout) it does show what a great pure songwriter Evan Dando once was. Stripped of all adornment, his music is gorgeous and real.
When Dando says “Thanks for listening, goodbye” there’s an implied, hindsight-aided sadness in knowing that they were in the midst of their best run as a band right at that moment and had only a year or two of glory left before they would be sidelined by Dando’s faded muse, drug addiction, band dissolution (among other problems) and a dwindling audience. That the current incarnation of The Lemonheads can still tour the ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ album successfully is as heartening as it is depressing – wouldn’t it be wonderful to have another set of songs as touching, as sweet and tender as these to get our teeth into right now?