Lemonheads started out in Boston in the mid-1980s playing hardcore punk, but mellowed a bit and had a college radio hit with its cover of Suzanne Vega's "Luka," leading to a deal with Atlantic Records. It's a Shame About Ray was the group's second album on Atlantic, and its best, one of 1992's finest releases. It spent some time atop the Gavin Report College Albums chart and reached No. 68 on Billboard's album chart, not spectacular but pretty good for a quirky alternative band.
Lemonheads leader Evan Dando hit the songwriting jackpot here. Every track is a little epiphany of some perfectly observed moment. "My Drug Buddy" (which had its title shortened, hiding its mild controversiality) proclaims "I'm too much with myself / I wanna be someone else," a trenchant aperÃ§u. Dando's nuggets of insight are often into a diffident personality, such as "Bit Part"'s demure request: "I want a bit part in your life / a walk-on would be fine / [â€¦] Little more than a stand-in / I won't be reprimandin'." "Rudderless" dwells on "hope in my past," "waiting for something to break / left my heart out to bake," and ends cleverly yet poignantly: "A ship without a rudder's like a ship without a rudder's like a ship without a rudder." A piquantly dissonant guitar riff and rocking beat drive home its melancholy message. More joyful tunes include "Alison's Starting to Happen" and "Kitchen," both about the heart-swelling excitement at the very beginning of a relationship.
After a typically rockin' cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" done for a video release of The Graduate became a hit, Atlantic added it to the CD. Before that, it was 12 songs and less than a half-hour long, because Dando had been checking out the Beatles' Rubber Soul in the old, shortened U.S. version and liked that format of a dozen short, catchy songs. So the clean, pop sound with a plethora of sing-along melodies marks a throwback to that most classic of pop bands, but the songs' brevity and laser-beam lyrics also reflect Lemonheads' punk roots. Juliana Hatfield plays bass throughout (Dando was an off-and-on auxiliary member of her band the Blake Babies) and adds vocals on several tracks, most dramatically on "Bit Part." Drummer David Ryan's loose but substantial beats add welcome oomph, and the Robb Brothers' production keeps things simple but adds just enough occasional decoration (organ on "My Drug Buddy," pedal steel guitar on "Hannah & Gabi," handclaps on "Kitchen") to give every song a distinct aural identity.
Calling this album a small masterpiece is no exaggeration. That it achieves its precise, tightly focused goals so nonchalantly -- and that Dando in interviews at the time seemed like such a goofy stoner -- certainly doesn't mean that writing and delivering such brilliant pop gems is easy; such casual conciseness and unpretentious poetry may occasionally happen by accident, but not as repeatedly and consistently as on It's a Shame About Ray. - Steve Holtje
Steve Holtje interviewed Evan Dando when It's a Shame About Ray was first released. Even though the interview took place at the offices of Atlantic Records, Evan was wearing yellow pajamas.