San Diego’s The Donkeys strike a balance of smiling, surfer mysticism and winking, slacker mystique. They reanimate the charming hallmarks of sunshine-rock past without being sepia-toned retro or bubblegum-cloying. There is an innate playfulness and honesty to the music they make. It’s a dynamic that has made public champions of keen-eared musicians like John Darnielle (Mountain Goats) and Craig Finn (The Hold Steady). It was Darnielle who claimed The Donkeys were benevolent keepers of what he called “The Antidote” to an unnamed sickness plaguing indie rock. We liked that sentiment a great deal.
Born With Stripes is an altogether less twangy affair than the band’s 2008 Dead Oceans debut, Living On The Other Side. The nods to Grateful Dead and Buffalo Springfield are better balanced with echoes of other Cali arists, notably Pavement and Beck. The country-rock flairs are often overtaken by powerpop hooks. What some might call a lazy melody is really just a melody on its own clock. Nice and relaxed.
“Ceiling Tan,” feels like a lost weekend in Tijuana with Mutations and Crooked Rain, and may well be the band’s mission statement. “I Like The Way You Walk” also cops a 90s’ alt-rock lick, but ditches any esoterica for earnest yearnings and sweet nothings. However, as all four Donkeys shout-sing “Love you with all my heart!” to close out the tune, one gets the sense it’s less a love song than a lament.
What makes the Donkeys so potent is not their ability to rehash the past, it’s that their records embody a pureness, an authenticity that is unmatched in contemporary music. We were not the only ones to feel this undeniable connection. The Donkeys had a brush with Hollywood when Lost producer Eddy Kitsis heard the band, and cast them as Geronimo Jackson, a band he had written into the Lost story as an obscure San Francisco band from the 70s, who were peers of the Grateful Dead. Kitsis heard the Donkeys and felt they so embodied this fictitious band, that he actually had the band re-record their song “Excelsior Lady” as “Dharma Lady” and weaved it into the TV show.
The album was mixed by Pernice Brothers’ Thom Monahan, whose involvement not only gives us the crispest, warmest Donkeys recordings to date, it also serves to remind us of the band’s loose connections to an array of psych-dappled kindred spirits: Vetiver, Papercuts, Brightblack Morning Light, Devendra Banhart. Monahan was not the only outsider the band collaborated with on Born With Stripes. The playful album artwork was created by California illustrator and cartoonist Tony Millionaire, best known for his comics Maakies and Sock Monkey, and as the creator of the Adult Swin show Drinky Crow.