Mr. Popular

From the very beginning, life wasn't much of a strain for Evan Dando. Thanks to his globetrotting parents, he grew up well-off, well-cultured and well-liked; he'd been just about anywhere he'd ever dreamed of going by the time he finished high school. He's handsome -- not just as musicians go, but in the classic, leading man sense. He's rubbed cheeks with celebrities galore, purportedly partied for days without sleep with Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes and chatted about his avid drug use with any journalist who would listen. He even swapped spit with Courtney Love for a photo that sent the tabloids scrambling, and later, off-camera, indulged in a bit more with the former Mrs. Cobain -- or so he says.

For those and sundry other exploits, Dando offers few apologies. The reward for his insatiable appetites and unfettered vanity? A reputation as one of alt-pop's most celebrated party-boy underachievers, a slacker stigma that will likely dog him to the grave. In 1993, following a flurry of escapades that the media dubbed his "ex-tended lost weekend," Dando did attempt rehab -- for about ten days. He documents his antsiness during that aborted stab at respectability in "Hospital," a deceptively offhand little ditty from car button cloth, the Lemonheads' latest release: "You've gotta run away / You've gotta spin a web / You've gotta stay out late / You've gotta stay in bed."

Typically, Dando opted for all but one of the above, ditching his institutional digs and speeding off in a limousine to get high. Littered with dark, discomfiting images and an uneasy sense of detachment, car button cloth is about all that remains of a three-year period during which Dando attempted to purge himself of his more self-destructive habits, not to mention his reputation as a paparazzi magnet. Still, even in hiding, the singer managed his share of publicity via a role in the independent film Heavy, with Liv Tyler, and his high-profile palling around with the likes of Oasis's Noel Gallagher.

But don't hate Evan Dando because he's ascended the ladder of celebrity with little effort despite having nary a single top ten hit. Hate him because he's actually one fine songwriter, and all the nonsense swirling about his person has conspired to obscure that fact. Chances are you never figured Dando to be a huge Cole Porter fan, or realized that he regards Brahms and Miles Davis with the same reverence as he does Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. From careful listening, you might already know that he digs Gram Parsons and the Louvin Brothers; he's covered material sung by both over the years, along with tunes penned by Suzanne Vega ("Luka") and Paul Simon ("Mrs. Robinson") and mass murderer Charles Manson. So even while Dando works hard to convince the public that he's nothing more than a vacant-headed lush, the Lemonheads' recorded output over the last five years for the most part gives the lie to his slacker's facade.

The Lemonheads originally assembled in 1986 as a noisy band of teenage punk rockers -- and a fairly crummy one at that. Sorting through 1989's Create Your Friends, a compendium of the Lemonheads' first two full-length releases, for indications of what they'd later become is a pointless exercise. Song titles such as "Uhhh," "Clang Bang Clang," "Die Right Now" and "Hate Your Friends" reflect fairly the contents within: 26 irritating, melodically malnourished tracks, most over in less than two minutes, their blanket maturity level summed up neatly on the disc's conceptual coup de gráce, "So I Fucked Up."

Initially, the band was a shared vehicle for the talents of high school buds Dando, Ben Deily and Jesse Peretz, son of New Republic editor Martin Peretz. But when Deily bailed early on and Peretz split in 1990 to make music videos, events dictated that the Lemonheads become a Dando solo project. And it's been that ever since, give or take a rhythm section and assorted special guests. At first, the Boston-bred Dando downplayed his innate sex appeal, sporting frumpy, street-jock attire and a chip on his shoulder the size of the city in which he was raised. Early on, his strained snarl barely hinted at the drowsy, personable warble he'd eventually settle into. But when the warble came, it seemed to arrive naturally -- just as, for that matter, his role as post-punk's premier girl toy did.

After two mucked-up attempts at a punk rock/folk-pop fusion (1988's Lick and 1990's major-label debut Lovey), 1992's It's a Shame About Ray marked Dando's official arrival as champion of the obvious hook. Central among its simple pleasures is the title track, a jangly, Kinks-style affair with lyrics that make a rare attempt at addressing the world beyond Dando's inner strata. Ray, with its endearing paeans to wasting time and getting wasted, feeds off an undeniably rootsy undercurrent; it's Dando's shiftless variation of folk music for an equally shiftless generation, and everything he's squeezed out since pales in comparison.

Not that Ray's 1993 follow-up, Come on Feel the Lemonheads and the new car button cloth aren't without their memorable moments. Feel counters pop confections such as "The Great Big NO" and the honeyed near-hit "Into Your Arms" with garish bouts of self-indulgence that attest to its creator's doped-up condition at the time. The disc's weirdest trip comes courtesy of "Rick James Style," a disoriented duet with Chairman Superfreak himself that documents the lethal pull of addiction in cryptically tossed-off Lemonheads fashion: "Don't want to get stoned / But I don't want to not get stoned." Predictably, Dando's stint in rehab followed soon thereafter. For their part, car button cloth's "It's All True" (Dando's cagey poke at the gossip mill) and the harrowing "Losing Your Mind" rock with a fury previously unheard.

Now on the last leg of a U.S. tour in support of car button cloth, the presumably clean, but not quite sober, Dando has sworn off most interviews. Perhaps that's just as well, seeing as he's always had a way of turning interviewers' brains to mush, transforming what might have resembled lucid conversation into an empty jumble of dimwitted sentence fragments. Smart as a whip, Dando nevertheless has a way of

sucking the intelligence right out of a room; it's a skill he prides himself on. As a result, most press on the Lemonheads -- with some exceptions -- winds up being more about Dando's extracurricular high jinks than about his music.

Then again, most Lemonheads music is about Dando's extracurricular high jinks, anyhow. And it's apt to stay that way until Dando either flames out or gets bored -- whichever comes first.

The Lemonheads perform Monday, June 16, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12.57. 57 Farm Dogs open. For info, call 863-7173.

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Hobart Rowland