Mike Donovan WOT

[Drag City; 2013]

Styles: have a neck on this
Others: Skip Spence, Gary Higgins

Sic Alps were the baddest, saddest, weirdest garage band around for the best part of a decade. Like, next to them, Thee Oh Sees felt like A students — a homemade pipe bomb next to a drawing of a slingshot — and next to that, Ty Segall was a pincushion without the pins. Napa Asylum is still pretty much the best time anyone can have while having a really, really bad time, but, despite having gone from strength to strength while scrubbing off the scunge, they’re now gone, having disappeared the moment they started to clean up their act.

So, definitely don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just a Sic Alps record in everything by name; while last year’s Sic Alps was (mostly) legible compared to its older brothers (complete with honest-to-God Cosmic Dancer string sections) and the death rattle of She’s On Top followed that trend to a relatively gleaming hilt, this is cleaned up, barefaced, and lowdown to the porch, all backwoods blues and acoustic shuffle. One can imagine Mike Donovan swinging his legs and clicking his fingers to “Lost Wot” in a way absolutely no one could to “Do You Want to Give $$$.”

It’s unsurprising that WOT is mainly an exercise in learning new stuff about Donovan, and nearly all of it is goon. Who would have guessed that, when laid bare, Donovan’s voice is a lovely, husky broken thing, reminiscent of Skip Spence before a complete mental shutdown? Who would imagine a Sic Alps song as emotionally searching as the lilting “Still in Town,” which is basically the sound of someone knocking on every door in the city to find their True One? Then again, the song after that one is called “Baroque Ass,” so this is decidedly the same guy we’re talking about here, and the side of Donovan that surged in cuts like “Message From the Law” lives here in “Do Do Ya?,” which is as T-Rex dunderhead fun as the title suggests, saluting a “not/commonplace at all!” lady with a Bolan swagger and the biggest, chewiest hooks on the record. For the money shot, Donovan hollers “You didn’t know what a rock & roll song sounded like/ Till you heard all of mine!” with the same kind of endearing self-appreciation/deprecation that R. Stevie Moore had in like, say, all of the songs he wrote about songwriting. (The word “mine” in that lyric I quoted just there is stretched out over three syllables in full 1963 Beatles harmony, just in case you missed the wink.)

If there’s a problem, it’s that this batch of songs doesn’t quite show off Donovan’s gift for weirdness as much as previous Sic Alps outings. Even if the record never stops being a good time, the material feels slight hiding in such plain sight; and in any case, titles like “MP3 Farm” and “Sexual Reassignment Surgery Blues” just end up coming off like missed opportunities when they’re flat blues outings. The two rambling instrumentals feel more like Dylan getting the fellas to hash out “Country Pie” to round out two sides of vinyl for Nashville Skyline than they do parts of a whole here. When it comes to laying his chest bare, “A Thousand Ages From the Sun” gets bizzarely akin to hippie-earnest bore territory if you squint enough, so I’m just gonna parley that one.

When Donovan sits his swag down, pokes at the campfire, and pulls on the guitar like this, he opens up his words and his melodies to an extreme depth of focus, and as such, he comes off feeling a little more middle-tier. Like, one can play against your own gifts by only trying to turn the focus onto a few of them, and while he’s adept and True as Hell at playing it straight as he does here, it’s hard not to wish he was in a mood to wave his freak flag a bit harder. But heck; he’s still in town, he’s still around, and there’s enough here to make an afternoon of it at the very least. If the worst you can say about Wot is so what, it’ll whistle it straight back to you.

Links: Mike Donovan - Drag City

Most Read