Peaks and Valleys
The Lemonheads have returned to producing cover albums with Varshons 2, the sequel to 2009’s Varshons. The band’s newest release is a joyful, carefree exploration of the band’s influences–maybe it’s just because they’re becoming increasingly rare, but there’s something inherently fun about an album comprised entirely of covers. Still, Varshons 2 is an up and down experience–the standout tracks are fantastic, while others fall flat.
Varshons 2 opens with a low-key, mellow cover of Yo La Tengo’s “Can’t Forget.” The track has a nice swing to it, and the duet vocals are well done. Stylistically, the vocal arrangement is similar to Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers’ performance on Better Oblivion Community Center.
The band ping-pongs back and forth across a number of genres throughout the album–everything from folk to classic rock to reggae, and plenty in between. Folk is a particularly good sound for the band, as evidenced by their cover of John Prine’s “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness.” The simple, minimalist dynamic of vocals and an acoustic guitar suits frontman Evan Dando well.
The group’s rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Abandoned” is one of the album’s best offerings. With a similar ballad-style progression and cut time tempo, the transition from “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” to this track is seamless. However, this one kicks things off with a heavy, distorted guitar tone, giving it a distinctly different feel than its predecessor. This track contains some of the album’s most inspired lead guitar work, with a sonic and tonal similarity to Slash’s play on Guns n’ Roses 1992 release, Use Your Illusion. Dando’s use of melodic major pentatonic licks, expressive bends and a wah-wah pedal makes the lofty comparison justifiable. The highly emotive guitar playing almost makes it sound as if the guitar and vocals are trading duet verses.
Similarly, the Lemonheads’ cover of “Straight To You” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is a stirring rendition, and arguably the best song on Varshons 2. Lead guitar once again stands out, as Dando implements the same Slash-style playing as “Abandoned.” Although the band is certainly not known for heart-wrenching ballads, it’s a sound they achieve with striking success.
As the band traverse their varied influences throughout the album, it’s clear that they’re having fun doing it. However, this doesn’t always translate to their best work, as some of their classic rock and blues-influenced performances are a bit stale. Songs like “Things,” “Old Man Blank,” “TAQN” and “Magnet” lack the flare of their aforementioned counterparts. The band even dares to try their hand at reggae on “Unfamiliar,” a bold move but hardly the group’s best. Granted these are not original songs so only so much criticism can be levied against the Lemonheads, but these performances often fail to do anything as musically interesting as the album’s better tracks. Even the album’s closer, a cover of the ubiquitous “Take It Easy” by The Eagles just feels a bit flat, though it does effectively encapsulate the carefree nature of Varshons 2.
Generally speaking, when the Lemonheads move closer to their blues/classic rock influences, their songs become a bit more static and less interesting. The stripped-down, simplified ballads and folk tunes are the best Varshons 2 has to offer. Given the fact that it’s a cover album and therefore lacks any overarching connective tissue, listeners can easily parse through Varshons 2 and listen to the album’s better tracks without worrying about missing out on the full experience. This album has some ups and downs that make it tough to recommend as a complete album, but the highs are so worthwhile.