It wasn’t all that long ago that Evan Dando seemed to be on the verge of conquering the world as the leader of a little punk band out of Boston named after a little box of sour candies. Then again, in the always fickle realm of pop music, where the shelf life of a major trend has only continued to shrink as the information age has taken root and an entire career can be encapsulated in a couple of successful albums, the former Lemonheads frontman has been out of the spotlight for what counts as ages.
By any measure, though, Dando’s first flirtation with mainstream success was a brief and messy affair — one that began in earnest, almost accidentally, with the release of the Lemonheads’ heavy-metalized cover of the Suzanne Vega tune “Luka”, tacked onto the end of an otherwise marginal 1989 album called Lick (on Taang! Records).
The band subsequently signed with Atlantic. Their 1990 major-label debut Lovey was largely overlooked, but 1991′s It’s A Shame About Ray earned critical acclaim and modest commercial success, reaching #68 on the Billboard charts. Their 1993 release Come On Feel The Lemonheads peaked at #56 on the charts and produced their sole #1 modern-rock radio hit, “Into Your Arms”, but the album was largely written off by a significant chunk of the alternative nation that had embraced It’s A Shame About Ray.
Along the way, Dando seemed all too willing to play the part of the dumb-blond coverboy, to talk openly about the drug use that had begun to take its toll on Lemonheads live shows, and to play the music industry game — whether that meant posing for tell-all cover stories, or delivering a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” to Atlantic at their request (it was appended to later pressings of It’s A Shame About Ray) in a transparent attempt to replicate the success of “Luka”.
The band didn’t flame out so much as just sort of fade away in the wake of the failure of one more spotty CD, 1996′s car button cloth. By that point, after eight albums and a handful of EPs, it hardly seemed like anyone really cared one way or the other what the future held for Evan Dando. In five years he’d gone from being a promising young post-punk artist — not to mention the songwriter of one of the better pop albums to come out of the ’90s — to playing the clichéd part of the premature rock ‘n’ roll casualty, something that seemed all too common in the ’90s.
His facade of slacker cool (he is the son of an attorney and a fashion model) had cracked, revealing a prematurely spent Dando who seemed intent on doing himself in one way or another. What had passed for the joyful noise of youth prior to It’s A Shame About Ray just sounded sloppy as the band’s live shows went from bad to worse. At one such show, a co-bill with fellow Boston alterna-rockers Buffalo Tom at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, Dando openly asked John Strohm, who’d been drafted from the Blake Babies to be the band’s second guitarist in their final incarnation (Strohm had filled in on drums in an earlier incarnation), what chords various songs started with.
If nothing else, though, Dando survived. And he did quite an excellent and extensive job of qualifying himself for a lead role in one of VH1′s “Behind The Music” specials. He certainly fulfilled the first two requirements for their blueprint, which is set up to document the rise of a promising young act followed by its slow and steady decline, and finally redemption in the form of a comeback album, a friendly reunion, or just a successful stint in rehab.
Drug abuse, internal conflicts, and any other of fame’s potentially lethal side effects are almost always part of the story. The more, the merrier. Mötley Crüe are practically the poster boys for the “Behind The Music” concept. In fairness, though, Evan Dando isn’t far behind. The ratio of promise to product in Dando’s case ranks him as one of the major disappointments of the ’90s, especially to anyone who came of age in or around Boston when the Lemonheads were getting started in 1984, when the effortless talent with which Dando played guitar (not to mention drums and bass) and wrote and sang was so apparent.
The one thing that’s remained conspicuously absent from the Dando resume for the past half-dozen years is that crucial redemption part of the story, which is usually accompanied by some sort of comeback. But he has seemed almost defiantly determined to maintain a low-profile, even as he has slowly worked to rehabilitate his career in little ways — by contributing, for example, a rather moving reading of “$1,000 Wedding” with his old pal Juliana Hatfield on the 1999 album Return Of The Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons (Almo), and by embarking on the occasional solo tour, which never failed to feature at least a couple of tempting new tunes.
By Y2K there even seemed to be an organic groundswell of support for Dando’s return to active duty. One Rolling Stone review of a Foo Fighters album compared Dave Grohl’s songwriting favorably to Dando’s and ended by calling for Dando to come back because all was “forgiven.” Rumors of a country album surfaced and receded, though in 2001 Australia was treated to the 2-CD Live At The Brattle Theatre/Griffith Sunset EP package, which seemed to confirm that Dando had headed off in a rootsy, acoustic direction.
And Dando alternately turned up in the company of two young singer-songwriters, Ben Lee and Ben Kweller, reportedly working on new material, though it was never clear just when, where or how that material was meant to come out. Until, finally, at the start of this year, came the announcement that Dando had indeed finished his first solo album and was ready to at least take his first few tentative steps on the comeback trail by agreeing to release the disc — Baby I’m Bored — on the independent label Bar/None.