I spent a lot of time during the mid-to-late 90s and early 00s caught up in the alternative country movement, but it wasn’t until the other night that I connected the dots back to the one song that may have inadvertently kickstarted that period of my listening life. I was cooking dinner for my daughters and looking for some pleasant background music that my little ladies and I could agree on (they’re not the noise enthusiasts I was hoping they’d be by 2), and The Lemonheads’ alternative/pop classic It’s A Shame About Ray seemed like an excellent choice. It’d been a long time since I’d thrown it on, and they’d surely dig Evan Dando’s boyish power-folk charms, right? The fact that they didn’t demand “Elmo’s Song” once meant it was a great success.
Eventually we got to “Hannah & Gabi”, a dusty lovelorn gem late on the album and one of my favorite Dando songs of all time. It’s easy to see why this simple, virtually unadorned song has always been overlooked in the Lemonheads’ catalog – it’s surrounded by the title track, and “My Drug Buddy”, and “Bit Part, and “Rockin’ Stroll”, and “Kitchen” and all of those great songs that foreshadowed Dando as a near-miss rock star and perpetual under-achiever in the early 90s. When It’s A Shame About Ray came out I was about 16 or 17 and, like many others, needed a melodic alternative to grunge. Ray easily filled this spot. At that point I guess I’d probably heard and liked some country-inflected songs before, maybe some late 60s/early 70s Rolling Stones stuff or the stray Harvest-era Neil Young tune. But “Hannah & Gabi” was the first “modern” band I can remember with a countryish song, and it definitely opened the floodgates for Wilco, Son Volt, & The Jayhawks to dominate my speakers a few short years later.
Dando has explored the Americana side of his songwriting repertoire throughout his sporadic career since Ray, and he’s certainly penned (and covered) some great songs in that style since – “Big Gay Heart”, “The Outdoor Type”, “All My Life”, and his version of Gram Parsons’ “$1000 Wedding” spring to mind. Knowing what we do now about Dando’s continual struggles with addiction, it makes a lot of sense that his damaged, heart-on-the-sleeve lyrical and vocal style would be better suited with acoustic guitars and pedal steel guitars over the noisy clatter of The Lemonheads’ early days. But “Hannah & Gabi” doesn’t hint at the self destruction that’s always plagued Dando – it’s simply a pretty little song with themes of distance, movement, and gallantry in the face of heartache. Looking back at It’s A Shame About Ray, “Hannah & Gabi” holds the biggest sentimental place for me, and remains such an underappreciated highlight on a wider scale.
“Hannah & Gabi”:
(from It’s A Shame About Ray. Buy here)