On their first two records, the Donkeys were dusty, countrified throwbacks, but it wasn’t about anachronism or revivalism. These guys really seemed to play from the gut, there was no pretense to it. Sure, these guys are from SoCal, but it seemed like more than the typical sun-soaked rock-out. The songs — particularly on the often excellent Living on the Other Side — were just too good, the cascading solos too tight, the clever twists too well executed. It just seemed, well, effortless and totally free of self-consciousness, in the way that cohesive and talented rock bands are.
Born with Stripes tries to move away from the dust and light twang of their first two records towards something a little closer to 90’s slacker rock. And if their execution before seemed effortless — if they sounded like the songs were in their wheelhouse — things feel a little tight here. It’s telling that the best stuff hearkens back to Living on the Other Side. The soft tones of “I Like the Way You Walk” seem too controlled until the band comes in to shout “Love you with all my heart!” at the song’s end. On the other hand, “Ceiling Tan” is boozy and drifting and excellent all the way through. Even as it lilts along, they pull it together to insist, in the chorus, that we “make it black and blue.” It’s a nice counterpoint to the equally solid country-fried garage rock of the title track.
Those songs work because they seem to bridge the gap between, say, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Pavement. The most expansive moment here, “Valerie,” is also the best because it feels wreckless, with the squalls of feedback and the buzzing guitars and the just jagged enough vocals. The rest of the record feels way too tame in comparison. Songs like “Don’t Know Who You Are” or “Oxblood” feel stuck, the riffs tight but lacking the atmosphere their best stuff offers. In trying to reframe their sound in a more modern context, they’ve lost some of their strengths. Even “Bloodhound,” with its bluesy vibe, overplays its hand at country tropes (the girl takes the dog when she leaves, there’s a Greyhound bus) and feels forced in between these other straightforward pop songs.
Born with Stripes is, in the end, a risk that doesn’t quite pay off. The Donkeys get points for stepping out of their comfort zone on this record, and often trying something new. But the best stuff here expands naturally on their established sound, and unfortunately those songs are in the minority here. With no clear-cut standout like “Nice Train” or “Dolphin Center,” the record fights to find its footing on slacker-rock ground and never quite gets there. These guys have plenty of great music left in them, I have no doubt, they just need to remember how forceful they can be, you know, when they don’t force it.