A Journal Of The Dark Arts
There is a feeling in Southern California. There has always been a tendency, in humanity, to push west, to migrate, to follow the sun. West was the direction of innovation (even if the Native Americans thought it was the land of the dead). All dreamers moved west, chasing their dreams.
There is a kind of shock and awe, when you run into the vast mystery of the Pacific Ocean, when you run out of land. On one hand, it’s bliss – it’s warm, it’s almost always sunny, there’s fruit trees every where. And in the other, there’s nowhere left to go, nowhere left to run. You can embrace the Zen of surf culture, or you can go mad, or you can start recycling the past.
On Ride The Black Wave, The Donkeys’ manage to capture the hope, the warmth & gentle sway of their home in San Diego, orbiting around a dark heart of Southern California Gothic.
The Donkeys’ mostly play 60s revival rock, but they go to show how diverse that really is, how much happened in that decade. A good portion of RTBW is a direct descendant of other classic SoCal records – Grievous Angel, Gilded Palace Of Sin, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, as well as the reverbed garage gaze beach bum vibes of Wavves or Best Coast, or even the sundazed heat stroke of Mojave 3. It is seeped in the aura of place, and effortlessly oozes that aura through yr speakers.
The main difference between The Donkeys and the 60s rock they adore is a sense of rhythmic precision that you just don’t hear as much in older records. Look at the tight, clicky precision high-hats of third track, “Nothing”, defining the grid like diamond cheese wire. There is a sense, with almost every modern record i hear, of rushing, of tearing ahead of the beat. It’s like we know what’s coming, and we’re two steps ahead. We’re so far ahead, we’re behind. I chalk this up to decades of listening to ourselves, looped and recorded. When you get so good at matching and replicating yrself, listening to yr solos endlessly, you can fine tune yr performance with lathe-like precision. Not to mention years of playing along with metronomes and drum machines and sequencers; we have a regular beat drilled into our cortex. It makes for damn fine rhythmicians, and also makes for damn fine records, as it’s easier to line things up.
The interesting thing about The Donkeys is that they have that same rushing feeling, that same rhythmic exactitude, but they are creating incredibly relaxed, chilled vibes. It’s like they’re highly motivated about being chill. Which is a good way to be; something i aspire to myself.
The Donkeys exemplify everything that was so great about My Morning Jacket was coming out. They were rock ‘n roll, but still gentle and breezy. It was like the wind blowing through a cracked window in a cruising car. It still has that energy that we know and need, from rock ‘n roll. That get up and go.
While The Donkeys may be in love with ’60s music, they do not restrict themselves to that decade. Instead, Ride The Black Wave could be seen as a cross-section of every decade, in sunny SoCal – from 20s crooning jazz, to 50s teeny-bopper rock ‘n roll, to ’70s prog shine.
Ride The Black Wave mainly centers around the guitars, which range from lazy twangy strumming, a la Neil Young, to canned reverb to distorted jangle, with plenty of room in the arrangements for pyrotechnics, like the sci-fi radio freak-outro of “Ride The Black Wave”. It’s so nice to hear a guitar solo, sometimes, when you’ve been bombarded with laboratory tones and street noise, for days. The Donkeys’ guitars ROCK, but they always maintain that laid back swagger. They stay cool. It’s that coolness that is my favorite thing about The Donkeys, how they drift and float, all while pumping yr blood. This music always reminds me of sunstroke.
The guitars are complemented with a wide array of tasty keyboards, from flutelike mellotron to Fender Rhodes, never busy but never stale. They pick the perfect sounds, to flesh out the mix – to finish the mood and tie it with a silver bow.
Add on top of that some killer drumming, that knows when to hold a backbeat, and when to skitter about like a jazz ballerina on hot coals, and you’ve got yrself the makings of a damn fine record!
Lyrically, they’re very natural. Lots of talk of the ocean, and waves, and sub-aquatic surrealism, that makes this record an (il)logical successor to Ween‘s The Mollusk. The Donkeys are clearly trying to convey a sense of place, a genius loci. They are broadcasting a sliver of San Diego, wrapping it up in a time capsule and sending it out into Deep Space, giving us all a chance to sway about in a hammock, to stare out at the ocean like Don Draper.
Ride The Black Wave has brought back some of the surface texture of their earlier recordings, after the crisp and clean Born With Stripes. Their music does well with a bit of saturation – ties everything together, and gives it that dreamy blur. They sound a little too much like a typical indie band, clear and upfront.
It seems like bands have been making classic records again. Records that sound timeless; that stand up against the records we grew up idolizing. Records that sound epic, without being brash. Recordings sound full and lush, giving musicians the chance to materialize what it is in their imaginations in acute detail. It’s exciting. Records from Sun Kil Moon, Warpaint, Marissa Nadler, and Sharon Van Etten have all been stone-cold classics, the best of the artist’s careers. Now we have the first Classic Summer Record of the year.
Ride The Black Wave is out on Easy Sound Recording Company, which has only existed since April, and already has releases scheduled from Howlin Rain, Papercuts and Vetiver, and should definitely be one to watch.