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The Donkeys - Born With Stripes

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Artist: The Donkeys

Album: Born With Stripes

Label: Dead Oceans

Review date: Apr. 28, 2011

The Donkeys have always been a pleasant ride, full of lackadaisical blues licks, pretty CSNY-ish harmonies, Southern California good feelings and just enough energy to get to the end of the track. Their Living On the Other Side was the kind of album you’d put on for a sunny afternoon…and then fall asleep on the porch swing. My notes for a review of it a few years ago are full of signs of fading attention — ellipses, half-baked metaphors and, about midway through, the phrase “not very exciting, is it?”

The good news is that Born With Stripes is more gripping than its predecessors. The sound is clearer and more focused, thanks perhaps to Vetiver producer Thom Monahan. The rhythms are crisper and less meandering, and the songwriting has become both rougher and more exotic. More important, they’ve done all this without giving up the indolent charm that has been The Donkeys’ stock in trade.

Born With Stripes is structured more or less symmetrically, with both sides beginning with a set of ramshackle rambles that lead with pop and drift toward a rootsier folk blues. For instance, Side A’s opener “Don’t Know Who We Are,” runs pretty close to straight indie rock, sounding more like The Constantines in its straight-up rhythms and muted, whispered dramas. It’s a good song, one that drives rather than drifts all the way to the end, and it’s so different from The Donkeys’ previous output that you might check to see if you’ve got the right disc. (I did.) From here, the band settles into a more recognizable folk-rock idiom, the lazy guitar-bending sensuality of “I Like the Way You Walk,” the slide-guitar-and-sticks smolder of “Bloodhound,” the goofy one-two punch of the title track, which follows a manic whack-a-mole beat from bass to snare, bass to snare, for two giddy minutes.

Each side’s second to last track is a longer, more psychedelic venture. Side A’s Piper at the Gates-ish “Kaleidoscope” is, by just a hair, the better of the two, though side B’s dreamy “Valerie” is pretty, as well. Then each side closes with an instrumental track where the guitarist switches to sitar, the first one dubbed “East Coast Raga,” the last one “West Coast Raga.” Neither of these cuts should keep Ravi Shankar up at night, but they’re reasonably enjoyable.

The album as a whole, however, is more than reasonably enjoyable. While still by its nature loosely strung and carefree, Born with Stripes demands your attention in a way that Living on the Other Side never did. With this third album, The Donkeys have very subtly upped the ante, injecting an almost imperceptible amount of tension and drama into their songs, which turns out to be exactly enough to make them matter.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of The Donkeys

Living On The Other Side

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Find out more about Dead Oceans

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