“It’s a Shame About Ray” by The Lemonheads: How Nuance Makes Simple Songs Great

The Lemonheads were one of the bands in the 90s that seems like should have been much bigger than they were. Even though Evan Dando had it all from a rock frontman perspective, drug use and the 90s slacker ideal seemed to derail the band before making a huge splash. Regardless, all three phases of the band (the early punk stuff, the 90s radio sound, and the 2000s comeback records) provided quality music and strong songwriting. This post will look at the title track from 1992’s classic It’s a Shame About Ray.

The Structure

On its surface, this is a simple song. It has one eight-bar chord progression in the key of A that runs through the entire song and one simple instrumental riff built on an Fmaj7 chord (the flat VI). The song structure:

  • Main Chord Progression 2x (Instrumental)
  • Riff
  • Main Chord Progression 2x (Verse 1)
  • Main Chord Progression 2x (Chorus)
  • Riff
  • Main Chord Progression 1x (Instrumental w/vocal pad)
  • Main Chord Progression 2x (Verse 2)
  • Main Chord Progression 2x (Chorus)
  • Riff
  • Ends on A chord

That looks like a whole lot of the same thing over and over! The chorus only happens twice and there isn’t even a bridge. However, it’s the chord progression, lyrics, and vocal performance that make this song.

The Music

Here’s the first verse with the main chord progression that is repeated throughout the song:

Verse 1 (with chords):

A                   E                                   D
I’ve never been too good with names.

A                   E/G#                    Gsus2                D/F#
The cellar door was open, I could never stay away.

A                   E                               D
I know it’s probably not my place.

A                 E/G#                   Gsus2             D/F#
It’s either or I’m hoping for a simple way to say…

The first line is a straightforward  I-V-IV, but the second half of the progression has some cool elements. Note that the G chord is a flat 7 chord and is outside the key of A. I cover the use of this chord extensively here. However, this time it’s really being used to fuel a cool descending chromatic bass line. This line starts on the tonic A chord, followed by the E/G# chord (which means an E major chord with a G# in the bass), where the third of the chord becomes the root note. This then continues down chromatically to the G and finally to the F# root underneath the D chord – again, the third. This makes four chromatic notes in a row, which makes for a nice sounding progression with a touch of spice to it.

However, the song takes this chromatic movement even further with the guitar riff that comes at the end of the main chord progression, built on an Fmajor7 chord. This means up to and including the riff, we get five chromatic notes in a row: A, G#, G, F#, F. If you’re going to go with something,  then take it all the way!  It is also worth nothing that this F chord is another outside-of-the-key chord and is the flat VI chord, a favorite of mine that I’ll be covering in future posts.

The Fmaj7 riff also plays the key roll of being the one thing that interrupts the repeated chord progression. It’s placement in the intro, between the verse and chorus pairings, and finally at the end are well-warranted for this purpose. While simple, it gives a nice reprieve from what would otherwise be the same progression repeated the entire time. 

The Lyrics

In prototypical 90s style, the lyrics are ambiguous with dark undertones.  A common interpretation is that this song is about the suicide of someone Dando knew. However, according this site, Dando said the following about it:

It comes from this guy in Melbourne, Australia, who calls everyone Ray. So I started to think that Ray could be a name for everybody, so ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ could be about anybody. It’s a pretty grey and indefinite kinda thing, but then it’s very specific. It’s a little puzzler for me, too. I’m not sure if the person singing the song is Ray himself, or someone who knew him. It’s hard to know.

Interesting, but I’m not sure that really helps! This one is definitely up for personal interpretation.

Regardless, I think there are some cool lyrical nuances worth discussing. To begin, Dando opens the song with a strong first line, “I’ve never been too good with names” – a relate-able phrase we’ve all heard a million times, whether you think it applies to you or not. However, he does two interesting things with this. First, it sets an ironic tone for a song where a person’s name is in the hook.  But then again, maybe he can remember Ray’s name because he is looking at a tombstone, as is implied in the chorus. Then, in the last line of the song, he returns to opening line but expands on it: “I’ve never been too good with names but I remember face” while the band drops out, really putting focus on the clever usage of the “name” theme.

Next, he uses a typical line format for the chorus lyrics –  the same one used in Bob Mould’s “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” which you can read about here  – four lines with the main line (or hook) making up both the first and fourth lines.

It’s a shame about Ray.
In the stone, under the dust his name is still engraved.
Some things need to go away.
It’s a shame about Ray.

A cool thing that Dando does here that Mould does not, is play with the lengths of the lines. Notice how long the second line is compared to the rest. When you come around to the fourth line, your ear naturally wants to hear a line with the same relative length and same amount of syllables. Instead, Dando gives us a short line that is a repeat of the first line. This repetition and uneven surprise in the length gives even more weight to the hook.

This is a pretty straightforward song, but even simple songs can have interesting elements. For a bonus, check out this great performance (and banter with Letterman) when the Lemonheads played this song on David Letterman around 1992 or 1993.

 

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