Ah, the cover album. The final tuneless nail in an artist’s career. The notebooks are dry, the lyrics unbecoming and the muse uncalling. No matter how your dress it, your sunday best has seen better days. It’s not a great stretch of the imagination to perceive a Lemonheads cover album. For an act that benefitted greatly by their cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” (not forgoing their original first stab at Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”), Evan Dando has always been one to show equal favour in his own songwriting to that of another.
The story behind Varshons isn’t the expected “artist plays his favourite songs”. Via mixtapes received from acquaintance and fellow musician Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, Dando went about making a mixtape of his own, recording songs taken from these cassettes. Those expecting a straight rundown of Dando’s obvious influences and live show favourites will be disappointed. Varshons is as much a discovery for fans of The Lemonheads and Evan Dando as it is for anyone else. You’d have to be Gibby Haynes himself to even have a passing familiarity with more than half of the tracks here.
First things first or perhaps last things first, the presence of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” is worth mentioning straight off. Tucked away as the final track, its presence is atypical of the joke track that mix makers would throw in for shits and giggles, yet Dando’s reading is straight down the line, much like his past cover of ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You”. There’s no attempt at a little tongue in cheek japery. Dando approaches the lyrics with warmth and sincerity, and you can’t but feel sucked in. The same feeling doesn’t extend to the atrocious collaboration with model Kate Moss. It’s electro presence amongst these acoustic and garage tracks stands out like a glow-stick waving raver at a folk show.
With those two elephants in the room quickly ushered out, Dando’s love for Gram Parsons has not diminished over the years and it’s perhaps here with his rodeo reworking of “I Just Can’t Take It Anymore” that he remains true to his roots. This track and Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around To Die” hit the dusty Americana folk trail but its with the good time rock and roll of deceased troublemaker G.G. Allin’s “Laying Up With Linda” and the psychedelic stomp of “Dandelion Seeds” that takes Varshons off the dirt roads and into the garage. Like all mix-tapes, Varshons is truly a mixed bag, and as with Dando’s creepy down register drawl on the Fuckemos “Mexico”, you take the good with the bad.
Pairing up with actress Liv Tyler, their duet on Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” plays out like a backwards glance the morning after. There hasn’t been a voice as matched with Dando’s since he last threw down with Juliana Hatfield, but Liv Tyler comes close, and as the afore-mentioned “Beautiful” brings things to a close, you realise he’s found his way to say goodbye. The hastily assembled spirograph artwork and Never Mind The Bollocks aping back sleeve smacks of indifference but luckily the tracks presented (with the odd exception) can’t be as easily as dismissed. The Lemonheads greatest asset has always been Dando’s ear for a great tune and his Boston by-way-of-the-Midwest vocals. With Varshons you realise some things never change.