Comeback Kid

Ex-Lemonhead Evan Dando makes a winning return.

If, as so many pundits once predicted, Evan Dando had actually expired in a blaze of bacchanalian glory a decade ago, he could've rested easy knowing his place in the world of music was secure. After all, few among the post-punk generation so perfectly embodied the carefree sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll ethos of a long-gone era better than Dandothough until recently it looked like he might become the alternative nation's Syd Barrett, rather than its resilient Keith Richards.

Born to privilege and ferociously intelligent, Dando earned his fame by playing punk, acting dumb, and partying to mind-numbing excess. During his mid-'90s ascent, Dando displayed a rare talentto steal a line from Nick Kentfor mixing the Byronic with the moronic. Yet his value systemone placing veracity above virtuealways remained consistent. When an NME interviewer famously asked a mute Dando to explain the reason for his shredded vocal chords, he simply scrawled the words: "Too much crack."

That same off-putting candor and uncontrived oddity made him a target of derision and scorn during his reign as the leader and one constant of Boston's Lemonheads. The group's labyrinthine saga easily stands as one of the oddest in all of indie rockthey began in '86 as a high-school hardcore outfit but, thanks to Dando's good looks, pop hooks, and insouciant charm, mutated into million-selling post-grunge heartthrobs.

It was the kind of success that the gadding, ill-disciplined Dando was hardly prepared for. He didn't exactly help deter the inevitable backlash that came his way by taking roles in Gen-X film fodder like Reality Bites, being photographed in bed with Courtney Love, posing for People, hanging with a run of Hollywood starlets, and even guesting on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. At its peak, Dando's familiar (if somewhat cloying) stoner visage famously provided inspiration for an anti-fanzine called Die, Evan Dando, Die.

As sharp as Dando's rise was, his fall was equally precipitous. A nonstop two-year run of recording, touring, and drugs resulted in a well-publicized meltdown at an Australian airportwhere a bleeding, acid-scarred Dando was arrestedin 1995. Rehab followed, as did a new Lemonheads disc, 1996's Car Button Clothbut both the album and Dando were dismissed as tired and tapped out.

Deciding he needed a dramatic break, Dando announced the end of the Lemonheads on a stage at Reading in 1997. Considering he was the band's only real member at the time, it was a curiousif primarily symbolicact of self-immolation. He later asked Atlantic for a release from his contract (the label obliged in exchange for the rights to a Lemonheads best-of), severed ties with his management, and basically disappeared from public view for much of the next seven years.

Finally, in 2003, Dando has emerged from his self-imposed exile, married, matured, sober, and with a new album in hand. Baby I'm Boreda titular pun on family station-wagon signageis a record that tells in plain language and poignant melody the story of Dando's fall and wasted years. Rather than the soggy misfire or calamitous comeback one might expect from a long-dormant artist, it is instead a note-perfect pop platter, one that will likely resonate long after the noisy sides of his youth and the gold records of the '90s have been forgotten.

AT FIRST GLANCE, Baby I'm Bored (Bar/None) is not so outré or vaultingly ambitious that it could be considered a masterpieceexcept, perhaps, one of understatement. On its surface, it's largely an album of echoing, acoustic folk-pop, marked chiefly by Dando's renewed sense of quality controlsomething noticeably absent from late-period Lemonheads efforts. Yet, it's also a record that reveals its depth upon repeated listeningsowing perhaps to the odd, cumulative fashion in which the album was conceived.

Using his own funds to record, Dando elected to stockpile the results of multiple sessions until he felt he had a strong enough collection of songs to whittle into a single album. Armed with four years' worth of tracksincluding studio forays with the Giant Sand/Calexico contingent in Tucson, Ariz.; producer Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Phish) in Brooklyn; and jack-of-all-trades Jon Brion in Los AngelesDando pared some 22 songs down to 12 and, with the help of wife Elizabeth (who also graces the album's cover), sequenced the final group into a seamless song cycle.

The opening "Repeat" rides in on a familiar acoustic grooveas if reassuring 'Heads fans that the absence of the brand name hasn't changed the product all that much. The three-minute missive "My Idea," a seriocomic confessional in the vein of Car Button Cloth's "The Outdoor Type," follows, before the listener enters the heart of an album that's battered and bewitching in equal measure.

The moody "Rancho Santa Fe"a track inspired by the Heaven's Gate cultists and recorded as a video monitor played Bergman's The Seventh Sealseems an appropriate statement of rebirth, while Spacehog's Royston Langdon stirs Dando from the depths with the intertwining glam-slam "Waking Up."

Fittingly, it was songsmith Ben Leewho as a teenager penned an ode to Dando called "I Wish I Was Him"who started his idol back on the road to making music, crafting him an eerily perceptive ballad titled "All My Life": "To be filled with hatred/For the time I've wasted/And I'm so impatient/ For a new sensation." The song proves a stunning slice of self-examinationeven though written by someone elsewhile another Lee-penned gem, "Hard Drive," seems to capture Dando's current state of domestic bonhomie.

More telling, perhaps, is Dando's graceful country pastiche "Why Do You Do This to Yourself?"its lines easily read as his own internal dialogue: "You stayed awake for 14 days and then you slept a week/Why do you do this to yourself?" Meanwhile, Brion's savvy pop touch in perfect concert with Dando's clever wordplayis evident in fleeting moments all across the album: from the sprite Beach Boys affectations that open "Stop My Head" to the closing swirl of Chamberlain on the wistful "It Looks Like You."

ALTHOUGH CO-WRITING credits are evenly spread among a contingent of collaborators (Lee, Brion, and Aussie tunesmith Tom Morgan), the album is dominated by Dando as vocalistrefining his gifts as an interpretive singer with a nuance that's grown sharper over the years. Interestingly, Dando's vocals now follow closely in the tradition of his two singing idols, alt-country progenitor Gram Parsons and jazz diva Billie Holiday. Lofty comparisons perhaps, but it should be noted that Parsons couldn't hold pitch and Holiday had little rangeyet like all great stylists, they used the limitations of their voices to added effect. So too Dando, whose weary baritone and craggy tones imbue the songs with a wizened, lived-in truth.

The album closes on an odd but remarkable note, with the loping waltz of "In the Grass All Wine Colored" the imagistic rendering of a Civil War soldier's thoughts as he lay dying on a blood-stained battlefieldwhose sole lyric is but a one-line variation of the title repeated for three and a half minutes. Hearing Dando carefully caress the words over and over, the effect is almost mesmeric, turning the song into a metaphor that's disturbing, yet ultimately profound. It's no coincidence it serves as the album's valediction, as Dando seems to draw a neat symmetry to his own experiences: Once bloodied and beaten, he's somehow managed to seize the perspective such tragic beauty leaves behind.

Neither steeped in pathological regret nor bloated with defiant posturing, Baby I'm Bored is very much the chronicle of a 36-year-old man owning up to his lost years and potential. The irony, of course, is that it took all that regrettable waste for Dando to reach the apogee of his art.

With his physical and artistic health seemingly assured, a resurgent Dando has embarked on his first full-scale U.S. tour in years. His current backing band is an all-star ensemble of Massachusetts musicians, gathering guitarist Chris Brokaw (Come, Codeine), bass-playing buddy Juliana Hatfield (Blake Babies), and drummer George Berz (FU's, J. Mascis, the Fog). As the group makes its way to Seattle this week, word is Dando's upcoming projects will include a long-rumored covers collection of country obscurities before he settles in to work on a proper follow-up to Baby.

Whatever twists and turns mark Dando's future path, here's hoping it won't take another seven years before we hear from him again.

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