Evan Dando is certainly no slouch when it comes to cover versions. In fact, many of his most memorable moments over the years – especially with the on/off/on again Lemonheads – have been via other people’s songs. From the snotty-but-sincere punk-pop assault on Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” via a warm chugging reheating of Michael Nesmith’s “Different Drum,” inside a loving restoration of Gram Parsons’ “Brass Buttons,” through the loved/hated high-octane conversion of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” and up to Smudge’s “The Outdoor Type,” Dando’s knack for making second-hand material fit seamlessly into his enduring repertoire has nearly made him the post-Hüsker Dü answer to Johnny Cash. Even some supposed Lemonheads and solo Dando ‘original’ standards – like “Into Your Arms” and “Hard Drive” respectively – were written by or with composers outside his various band line-ups. With all this in mind then, a full album of Lemonheaded covers seems like a logical and easy career-saver for Dando, after the somewhat one-dimensional laziness of 2006’s The Lemonheads LP. But is it?
On the surface, the wryly-anointed Varshons is some form of retreat from the self-distracted meandering that has dogged Dando since 1996’s Car Button Cloth. There are a handful of genuine gems gathered within, that feel both effortless and focused. A swooning country-jangle through Gram Parsons rarity “I Just Can’t Take It Anymore” is a fine opening salvo. An acoustic re-soldering of Wire’s previous post-punked “Fragile” is plaintively endearing, as is a fiddle-edged take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around To Die.” A couple of late-’60s psychedelic flashbacks also work well in pushing Dando and his hired-in company beyond normal comfort-zones; allowing for a tabla-framed attempt at Sam Gopal’s “Yesterlove” and a patchouli-scented boogie-squelch through July’s “Dandelion Seeds.” The hallucinogenic-haze even spills over into a lysergic re-landscaping of erstwhile garage-rock relic “Green Fuz.”
Outside the aforementioned creditable offerings, proceedings are far shakier. G.G. Allin’s murder ballad “Layin’ Up With Linda” is tossed-off with deadpan disconnection, Fuckemos’s “New Mexico” is rendered as a sludge-like plodder, and a dissolute strum through Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” is just the boring side of ironic. Equally troublesome is Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” – that even its author has failed to improve upon since the first classic 1967 studio incarnation – which is delivered flaccidly with celebrity guest tones from actress Liv Tyler. More bizarre is the lead vocal deployment of supermodel Kate Moss on an startlingly straight facsimile of Arling & Cameron’s novelty-electro nugget “Dirty Robot.” Designed as either a studio in-joke or a fan-aggravator, it merely falls between both stools ambivalently.
Overall, there is sufficient sun-kissed pleasure on Varshons to extend the patience of Evan Dando-devotees a little bit longer but not enough to surpass past makeover masterstrokes. Although still an intriguing prodigal son to keep one ear out for, it does feel like Dando could now genuinely benefit from the challenge and direction of a more democratic group or a firmer-handed producer.