All Aboard the Wagon

At some point, Evan Dando disappeared. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it occurred; it was more of a fade than a moment of spontaneous disintegration. But by the second half of the '90s--after a series of minor successes as the front man for Boston alt-rock darlings the Lemonheads, and his own ascension to heartthrob status--Dando was no longer a part of the pop-culture psyche. Gone.

A hit-and-miss Lemonheads album (1996's Car Button Cloth) and a changing definition of alt-rock will do that to a guy faster than you can say "Pearl Jam." But the fall of Evan Dando was as much about, say, a needle in the arm. A crisp, rolled dollar bill in the nose. Maybe some distilled liquids on the tongue. He once was so cranked on crack that he couldn't do an interview. He was also once hospitalized for a nervous breakdown after being subdued in a Sydney airport while peaking on acid and smack. That kinda thing. Eventually, the music seemed secondary. Trite, but true.

Dando made his official return this spring with Baby I'm Bored, a solo debut that comes seven years after Cloth, the Lemonheads' final soiree. Bored is a casual, contemplative alt-pop effort that eases the 36-year-old into the comforts of post-adolescent singer-songwriterdom. But, while one can read some sense of lessons learned throughout--notably, Dando's own "Why Do You Do This to Yourself?" and the Ben Lee-penned "All My Life"--the album is hardly a grand statement about the evils of substance abuse. Unlike high-profile resurrections over the years by such artists as Aerosmith, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland and country troubadour Steve Earle, Dando's not interested in playing that card.

"That's dangerous territory," he says on the phone from his Manhattan home. Dangerous because Dando is so nonchalant about his life changes that you get the impression that his demons are less exorcised than perhaps simply taking some time off. He looks at his past with more of a shrug, calling the Lemonheads' roller-coaster ride "fun" and explaining the seven-year drought between studio efforts was because he "wasn't ready--I didn't have the will to do it." Another case in point: the recent confession to Rolling Stone that he still smokes "a little teeny bit" of hash on occasion. Call him almost sober.

Besides, Lee, who's known Dando for a decade, says it's wrong to portray this as "Evan Dando's come clean and become a saint." He says his friend is much more complex than that. "Evan's excesses have never just been drugs and alcohol," Lee explains. "Evan's excessive in personality. He's too much human being so much of the time...[Drug use] just makes it more complicated, doesn't it?"

Things began to change in 1999. "I guess it was meeting my wife, I think," he says--he's hitched to model Elizabeth Moses. "I got more grounded. I wasn't just going out all the time. We were just content to stay in...I just got my focus back."

With focus came a renewed calling to make music. He used his own resources to start recording what would eventually be 30 or so new songs. He worked with the Giant Sand/Calexico collective in Tucson; with an old pal, Spacehog's Royston Langdon, in Brooklyn; and with in-demand producer Jon Brion in Los Angeles.

The Brion sessions not only yielded the album's more adventurous pop songs, but served another purpose as well--Dando finally stopped drinking. "Jon doesn't mess around with people who are real drunk or taking drugs," Dando says. "I realized early on that he'd only work with me if I was myself, and not on anything. He has lots of other things to do."

Fending off alcohol, Dando says, proved to be the key move: "Quitting drinking certainly reduces the temptation factor. If you're not drunk, you're not gonna need to do any coke to stay up. So, not drinking is certainly the most important thing for me."

Knowing that Baby I'm Bored took years and several different cooks to create, it is a surprisingly cohesive effort. It leans on Dando's more melancholy tendencies, not a stretch from the post-punk twang-pop best captured on the Lemonheads' fine 1992 release It's a Shame About Ray. And it avoids the calculated tendencies of the band's radio-fodder breakout hit: a cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson." ("I certainly don't listen to it," Dando says now.)

On first listen, Baby I'm Bored comes across as perhaps too unassuming--acoustic sketches with a smidgen of studio accoutrements for greater color. And you wonder: This is what we waited seven years for? But the record breathes with the calm of a Sunday sunrise, the spotlight squarely on Dando's simple craft and crafty vocals: part pop, part Gram Parsons wounded. It's a rare voice that makes every word seem special, whether singing about a fractured romance ("It Looks Like You," the album's most immediate cut) or about his own self-destructive tendencies ("Why Do You Do This to Yourself?").

While Baby I'm Bored might not be the big comeback statement, it's a warm, humble collection that comes across as the sound of a long-lost friend getting his shit together. And that's something to appreciate. At its emotional core are the songs "All My Life" and "Hard Drive," both composed by Lee, the former Australian teen-punk prodigy who once wrote a tongue-in-cheek song about Dando's then-star status called "I Wish I Was Him." Both songs are melancholy moments that suggest new beginnings: "Hard Drive" is a stream-of-consciousness tune celebrating the mundane ("These are the feet I'm standing on, these are the hands that built the world"), while "All My Life" conjures a sense of inner peace ("All my life, I thought I needed all the things I didn't need at all").

Lee wrote both tunes within a week of each other at a time when Dando was still trying to sort things out. "All My Life," in particular, was written specifically for his friend. Now, Lee calls it "a self-fulfilling prophecy."

"'All My Life' was sort of my hope for Evan that he was gonna sort of get it together again," he says. "And he gravitated to it and played it a lot and actually went through those changes. I don't think that's the power of the song; I think it's the power of zeitgeist. That idea was floating around, and it was clearly time for him to make some changes, I guess."

Dando's not ready to say he's completely returned to form yet. "It's gonna take me awhile," he says. "It's gonna probably take a couple records before I feel like I'm really back." That he's thinking ahead, though, bodes well for a man who sat idle for so long. He talks of recording another solo album this year and participating in some sort of collaboration whose details he refuses to divulge.

Meanwhile, he's crisscrossing the country with a band for the first time since the demise of the Lemonheads. Good news, although he admits the temptations are always just a tour stop away. "There's always someone from my past in any given town all over the world that comes out of the woodwork with tons know...and I just have to go, 'I don't do that anymore.' It's really hard. When I was touring on my own, sometimes they'd get me."

But Dando says that his new backing band, an impressive trio that includes longtime collaborator and former Lemonheads bassist Juliana Hatfield, is a built-in support group. Which, along with Lee and Brion and the others, composes the counterattack to having such ghosts haunting you at the end of every highway. "I have a network of really good friends, too, not like people that just want to get high," he says. "It's strongly in place...people that really want to see me doing better. I think that I have remarkable luck in that arena."