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. "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.
If the Donkeys' backstory contains those top-down cars and suntanned utopian surf tableaus, it also contains the malaise and the escape fantasies familiar to all suburban kids of the 80s and 90s. Part of this magic comes from the fact that there’s no artifice to the Donkeys’ songs, from the matter-of-fact breakup blues of “Boot on the Seat” to the playful recollections of a late, drunken night narrated on “Nice Train.” These are everyday lives in the postmodern world expressed with a deep respect for classic songs from the 70s through the 90s -- for spacey grooves and soulful, jangly swagger -- that elevates the subject matter beyond the ordinary. Living on the Other Side, the band’s second album, is not meant to hit you over the head with a flamboyant single – instead, imagine Ray Davies jamming with the Byrds, or a Gene Clark-fronted Buffalo Springfield -- and you’ll get a sense of the tradition that informs this band.