From the Crate: The Lemonheads' Car Button Cloth Turns 20

From the Crate: The Lemonheads’ Car Button Cloth Turns 20

So Evan Dando turned out to be human after all. Despite the ridiculous good looks, the genius-level songwriting, the honeyed voice and the easy slacker charm, he still proved just as capable at fucking his life up as the rest of us.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After 1992’s timeless, faultless It’s a Shame About Ray (as Samuel Johnson almost wrote, “When a man is tired of It’s a Shame About Ray he is tired of life”), label Atlantic thought they had the next global alt-rock megastar on their hands and threw large sums of money at Dando; in return he gave them Come On Feel The Lemonheads, a handful of great songs and a bigger handful of bad ones; and worse, he started hanging out with Oasis and smoking huge amounts of crack, two activities not renowned for their creatively inspirational properties. This epic lost weekend came to a head in 1995 when Dando, ripped to the tits on the junkie equivalent of a Long Island Iced Tea (speed, heroin, E and LSD) was arrested at Sydney Airport. He allegedly asked the arresting officers if they could release him long enough for him to retrace his steps so he could go and retrieve his mind, which he believed – quite understandably – that he’d lost somewhere.

Given these circumstances, it’s a miracle that he was able to put out Car Button Cloth the following year; an even bigger miracle that it’s so fucking good. Indeed, for its wonderfully charming first 14 minutes, you could even convince yourself that all was well chez Dando, that here was a man who had cleaned himself up and got himself back to writing the kind of effortlessly wonderful tunes that made him famous in the first place.

Tunes like the ‘Heads greatest ever single, ‘If I Could Talk I’d Tell You’, which recounts the aforementioned arrest (“Khmer Rouge, je ne sais quoi/Your place or Mein Kampf, now I’m givin’ the dog a bone”); the delicate indie-pop of ‘Break Me’; the charming ‘Hospital’; and the delightful cover of Smudge’s ‘The Outdoor Type’, a song that contains possibly my favourite lyric of all time (“I can’t go away with you on a rock climbing weekend/What if something’s on TV and it’s never shown again?”). It’s truly marvellous stuff and there’s not one note here that would have sounded out of place on Ray.

But six songs in, the album takes a sudden lurch into very dark territory, with the stunning blues of ‘Losing Your Mind’. If you’ve ever wondered where Nirvana would’ve gone after In Utero, listen to this. “What a comfort to find out you’re losing your mind/When you re-realise that it’s not the first time/You burnt the beyond when you learnt how to fly/Just to learn later on that there isn’t a sky/There aren’t any clouds and there aren’t any trees…” By the end Dando sounds exhausted, bereft, and so begins Car Button Cloth’s descent into madness.

The punky ‘Something’s Missing’ is one of Dando’s most heartbreaking lyrics (“Something’s missing from my life/There’s nowhere I really wanted to stay, and nothing really makes it OK”). There’s a bizarre cover of The Louvin Brothers’ nasty country death song ‘Knoxville Girl’, Dando’s flat, emotionless vocals sporadically hijacked by squalls of guitar. Even more bizarre is ‘6ix’, which consists of Dando screaming “Here comes Gwyneth’s head in a box!” over & over. ‘C’mon Daddy’ is apparently about Dando’s friend Liv Tyler discovering that he real father was Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, and is, er, somewhat creepy (“Come on daddy, run into my arms/Come on daddy, wanna feel your charms.”) And the brilliant ‘Tenderfoot’ is something of a mea culpa, an admission that he fucked up, that he’s putting it right, but he’ll probably fuck up again, set to one of the album’s best tunes – “This is my scream, it’s just a dull roar/These are my hands I’ve shown you before/Over the pain and I’m past the bleeding/It’s not the tracks its where they’re leading/Hasn’t been so bad yet I’ll do it again/Error of my ways? Maybe one of these days…
But the most telling song here, the one that gives the clearest insight into Dando’s state of mind, is the chaotic ‘One More Time’, which keeps flitting between fried acid rock and the catchy power pop of his previous two albums, the junkie and the pop star fighting it out before our very eyes. On Car Button Cloth, the pop star just about comes out on top but it’s a close-run and absolutely captivating struggle throughout, on what is one of the finest and most underrated albums of the 90s.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.