The Donkeys Living on the Other Side

[Dead Oceans; 2008]

Styles: road-trip rock, y’all-ternative, laid-back indie
Others: Drive-By Truckers, Flying Burrito Brothers, Love as Laughter

If gas prices weren’t such a travesty, I could totally see hopping in the ol' pickup (er, 2001 Cavalier) and hitting the interstate with Living on the Other Side on the stereo. The tunes — all jangly, laid back and reminiscent of early Dead — seem tailor-made for the road, with their soulful harmonies, winding guitar passages, and gospel organs all sounding like something off a tape you found in your cool, kinda weird uncle’s garage.

Following The Donkeys' self-titled debut and a profile-boosting stint as the backing band for Owen Ashworth’s Casiotone for the Painfully Alone project, Living on the Other Side imports the charming aspects of the first record, and tones down some of the more surprising ones. There’s no Curtis Mayfield-fronts-The Fucking Champs jams here like the barn-burning instrumental “Lower the Heavens”; instead, everything is loose and baked, like the brief and driving “Walk Through the Clouds,” a perfect summation of everything The Donkeys are capable of. It’s short, it’s direct and it’s lovely. Elsewhere, caustic lines like “Love ain’t nothing but a human disease” are delivered with the same lackadaisical quality as “Doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back door,” echoing their forefathers in California rural rock, CCR; and the most mournful song on the record, “Dolphin Center” burns along on a stoned Neil Young groove, with lyrics that concern ending up in some sort of aquatic hell.

The band trades off on lead vocals, and the songs benefit from the communal vibe. Tracks like “Downtown Jenny” recall Loaded-era Velvets, while “Nice Train” details the travails of touring life: “gay dudes fawning,” lost cell phones, and hipster bars, set to a jaunty, vaguely surfy beat. “I’m so discouraged I just don’t got the courage/ To just open that door and leave,” our narrator sings with all the strength of someone who’s been living out of a van for the last two weeks. “Dreamin’” fills out with uncharacteristic bongos and sitar, while the crystalline harmonies validate the song's title, and “Excelsior Lady” finishes the album with a slice of countrified soul and relatable sentiment: “I can always tell when you’ve been drinking/ But I never know what the hell you’re thinking,” and the chorus, “I believe that I’m in love again.”

While some of the flashy moves of the first album are certainly missed on Living on the Other Side, it’s pretty hard to fault The Donkeys for playing to their greatest strengths. Interesting diversions aside, these dudes deal in economy, and the bare-bones delivery of these songs reveal their heritage and The Donkeys' solemn commitment to ’70s classic folk, rock, soul, and country sounds. If the songs weren’t quality, it would be easy to write these guys off, but the tunes on Living on the Other Side are enough to make me consider charging a few tanks of gas to the credit card and seeing the ocean. And that’s saying something.

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