Epic Soundtracks, Evan Dando
Lounge Ax, November 18
Metro, November 23
Not in four decades of pop music has a rock star elicited such extreme reactions among young people as Evan Dando. He has inspired both a fanzine devoted solely to not liking him and a song by the young boys of Noise Addict that expresses their desire to be like him. From 1986 to 1991, Dando's band the Lemonheads enjoyed underground credibility on college radio stations. But in 1992, when It's a Shame About Ray found its way onto MTV, the critics started focusing on other things. The singer's modest charm and honeyed looks started attracting attention from image-oriented entertainment magazines such as Interview, and he was dubbed "alternahunk."
From then on the predominantly male rock press and the indie boys on college radio sneered at the Lemonheads. As Dando's songwriting got better, the patronizing comments multiplied. Granted, the men making the comments grew up in the 80s. Those were the years in which MTV slighted R.E.M., the Replacements, and Husker Du in favor of the pinup prettiness and disposable pop of Duran Duran. They were also the years in which spandex-clad pretty boys like Jon Bon Jovi dominated music video with silly, watered-down heavy metal. A lot of women liked Duran Duran and Bon Jovi. But the smart male rock fans just felt insulted.
In the 90s, however, a new female audience cropped up. Typically intelligent high school or college students, these women felt alienated from grim heavy metal and male punk. They too felt insulted by Duran Duran and Bon Jovi. These are women who like music, don't settle for Top 40, and don't scream at shows. Some of the bands they like happen to feature good-looking guys; looks can be a hook, as any guy who likes Juliana Hatfield will attest. But mostly they like bands playing creative music, challenging gender stereotypes, singing about relationships with depth and originality, and sporting a sense of humor. Bands like the Lemonheads and Chicago's Lupins.
Dando's recent gig at Lounge Ax was one of a handful of low-key club shows on his first solo tour. The crowd, more female than male, seemed to appreciate the opening set by Dando's close friend, Epic Soundtracks. The 27-year-old, who changed his name as a joke in high school, has never been on MTV. His resume is impeccably indie: forming a band called Swell Maps with his brother Nikki Sudden when he was 12, performing with the Jacobites and These Immortal Souls, doing sessions with Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu. The highlight of his shy, soft-spoken set was the catchy "Don't Go to School," which he wryly introduced as "a subtle teen rebellion song." Indeed, its subject is playing hooky and breaking rules, but musically it's a parent-pleasing concoction of soft piano. "I Believe," another tune from his upcoming album on the indie label Bar None (Sleeping Star), sounded like a pop-soul song, with Epic's Neil Young-like voice suddenly becoming Lenny Kravitz's sexy croon.
Evan Dando's set found the singer shedding his sex-object image. He wore a cowboy jacket and hat in the most unflattering shade of brown, and his hair was short and shaggy. The effect (probably intended, considering that last year at Tower Records he wore ripped jeans and a red boa) was that of a young John Denver. Of course, indie rockers with credibility usually dress in dull colors.
The Lemonheads' music has never been complacent, formulaic bubblegum pop. Instead it's evolved from irreverent punk/pop in a Replacements vein to Replacements-meet-George Jones. Dando has taken on increasingly meaningful song topics; he wrote a few particularly daring songs on 1993's Come On Feel the Lemonheads. The most commercially successful antimacho song by a man is arguably that album's "Big Gay Heart," Dando's protest against homophobia. On "Paid to Smile," he sings first about his own doubts about alternahunk status, then about the cocktail waitress who hates her job but gets good tips and "gets paid to smile." In drawing a parallel between the two situations, Dando displays great empathy for the women in his audience. "Paid to Smile" reminds me of Paul Westerberg's song "Aching to Be," in which he sang about his own need to be understood and self-expressive and the need many women have for the same thing. Both songwriters blur the line between audience and fan. That's not the behavior of a pinup boy, but rather of a musician with a message.
Dando created a feeling of warmth at Lounge Ax (even though he didn't smile on demand) by singing particularly soulfully on the large number of recent Lemonheads songs he's sung a million times by now. They sounded even more angst-filled than they did at the Tower Records in-store last year. After some great encores, including a bitter cover of Foreigner's "Cold as Ice," he asked a bunch of women to come up and sit onstage with him. He treated them more like potential friends than groupies; the whole thing had the feeling of a campfire scene.
The Lupins, like Dando, mix an antimacho message with their music. Singer/songwriter Stoley's outfits set the tone for their live shows. At a gig in October he wore a pink screen-printed T-shirt that featured the Stay-Free feminine protection logo. At the recent Metro all-ages show, he wore something you'd expect to find on Courtney Love or L7's angry feminists: a black shirt featured silver beads spelling "pussy."
Stoley's songs can best be described as--to borrow from Smokey Robinson--the tears of a clown. The clown act comes in his stage antics--he's an unconventionally adorable guy with dreadlocks wrapped in colored rubber bands who behaves like a bratty whirlwind: devilish hand movements, suggestive but subtle dancing, humorous comments. At Metro the night before Thanksgiving, he showed the audience his turkey dance, which was a "go-to-hell" nose gesture followed by a similar gesture centered on his derriere. His realization that young women aren't offended by a bit of raunchiness is a smart one.
The clown act also comes through in the lyrics: sarcasm and quick wit and occasional raunch, fitting in perfectly with the raw sizzle of the tunes, which combine techno, punk, country, and indie rock. But underneath the sarcasm are some obvious tears. Most of the tunes on the indie release Slob concern relationships gone wrong, which Stoley takes very seriously, much in the manner in which your average college-educated woman sits around and dissects romances with her friends to try to make sense of male behavior. Take "Hope to Say," about a phony woman friend: "I get more exhausted every day / Every day she's more in love and love only gets in the way. Cuz I've heard everything she said about me / I've heard every lie she's ever told." This is painful and thought-provoking, not the easy sentimental sweetness the Duran Duran audience wants to hear.
The Lupins' ultimate tears-of-a-clown song is their "When I...," an up-tempo pop tune that actually features sarcastic ha-has. The narrator's girlfriend suddenly dumps him, so he says, "There isn't anyone in this room that would tell you I did something wrong / So I know you love me / Ha ha / Ha ha / It's my life, it's my pain."
At Metro the band ran through a lot of hard-edged material from their upcoming major-label debut (on RCA, due out in the spring) with deliberate and pleasing punk sloppiness. There was moshing and dancing by both sexes, and every catchy, noisy new song was greeted enthusiastically. The band gave in to a request for the funky "People in the Kitchen," a clever but uncharacteristically cheerful bit about a really annoying person making a scene in a co-ed living situation. The techno-influenced poetry of "Epoxy"--a title used sarcastically to describe just how weakly a couple is glued together--found the women in the audience singing along and bopping around more than ever. "Take," the Lupins' surprise current local radio hit, which appears on the Dumb and Dumber sound track, is a sexually charged song with vintage R.E.M. harmonies and a very likable nonmacho male viewpoint in which the guy is open enough to admit that he's lovesick. He wants to see this girl so badly he offers her his car; then he can't resist making fun of his own lovesickness with lines like "Take my heart / Take me apart / Take me anywhere." Stoley's emotional openness is the quality women want in men most of all.
Evan Dando and the Lupins make interesting music that appeals to smart women, and the fact that they may think Lupins guitarist Blast is sexy shirtless onstage doesn't change that anymore than Evan Dando's media image does. This is the new smart pop. Don't blame these guys for being good-looking.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.