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CSS - Donkey

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Artist: CSS

Album: Donkey

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Jul. 14, 2008

Transgression was a big part of CSS's appeal back in 2006 when this band of bratty, potty-mouthed Brazilians bounced up and down in pigtails to a chant of "C-S-S Suxxx!" Whether you were a guy making the limbic connection between risqué language and risqué behavior, or a girl sick of being held to a double standard for lady-like-ness, CSS was a breath of fresh air. "Suck, suck, my art tit" indeed … it was fun stuff. Still, that was then, this is Warner-distributed now. There's hardly a trace of CSS's insouciant sailor swagger in the follow-up, Donkey. In fact, you could play it for a Montessori car pool, and no one would learn any new words.

It's not just the language that's been cleaned up, either. The band enlisted Mike Stent, who has worked with Madonna, MIA and Massive Attack, to work commercial grade emptiness into the mix. Where Cansei de Ser Sexy beckoned you to join a gritty, possibly dangerous street party, Donkey is all about the velvet rope. Last time, it seemed that anything might happen, cut to cut. This second record is as poised as a runway show: strut, saunter, smile, whirl, and flounce back to the dressing room.

This super clean vibe breaks down a couple of times, reminding you tantalizingly of why Cansei der Ser Sexy caused such a stir. The first time is in "Rat Is Dead (Rage),” the first single and one of several cuts to bristle with post-punk guitar distortion. There's just no way to water down the abrasiveness of the guitar stutter that pushes this cut, so the track is left rough and dangerous. It's also more lyrically adventurous than most, toying with images of domestic abuse. That's a departure from "Jager Yoga," which starts with a girlish squeal of "It's so hot!" or "Reggae All Night" about, yawn, staying up all night and partying. And sure, CSS has always been about the party, but in a smart, we-have-master's-degrees, layered-with-irony sort of way. You knew they were slumming.

The second time that Donkey rears its hooves is with its weirdest cut, "I Fly,” another big guitar track. Here, CSS seems to be back to its old sexually subversive tricks, singer Lovefoxx murmuring suggestively about entering a lover's orifices as … a fly. It's disturbing - revolting even ¬- but as out-there erotic as anything on the album, and the sheer in-your-face-ness of the track seems to propel CSS to a higher energy level.

But for the most part, Donkey flounders in a sterile morass. It may well bring CSS to a larger audience, one that doesn't consider subversiveness an impediment, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing. Next time, less commercial crossover please, and more dirt, intelligence and attitude.

By Jennifer Kelly

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