The Donkeys
Living on the Other Side
Dead Oceans

Supposing the Donkeys were without the West Coast surf under their nails, they’d be just another ordinary roots band struggling to get a leg up over the vast sea of ordinary roots bands. Upon first listen, the quartet’s debut, Living on the Other Side, tends to sound like a twang-filled blueprint that has been built many times, all the appropriate points on the map stuck with a tack, rustic sonics and road-weary cliches professionally cribbed from Wilco and My Morning Jacket. This, though, is one of those records that claws at the heartstrings when you begin to pay close attention.

Start with the bummer strut of “Dolphin Center,” an oft-repeated lounge trick with maudlin atmosphere thanks to homey organ licks and Timothy DeNardo’s plaintive croon. As a standard it succeeds. As an extension of that setting-sun lucidity it sparkles through a cloaked talent, a hidden earnest. Move onto “Bye Bye Baby,” the album’s feel-good centerpiece, and though it rambles down purely traditional paths, it has the proclivity of a group that’s put their stamp on any jammy parking-lot busk they’ve ever laid ears upon.

A suitable reference would be Columbus’ own Moviola, a band that would willfully expose the records that inspired the record but keep their unique chops close to the hip. Living on the Other Side thrives on the momentum of making their own American Beauty. They’d preferably be Buffalo Springfield in another life, but instead of middle-aged men hawking their proven wares, this is an introduction and the Donkeys want their independence from the pack. The little twists that inform the guitar playing (psych-lite interruptions), the tiny production quirks that enter the fray, the harmonies that show a glue usually absent, the goofy lyrics that keep them fresh—all entertain those of us that have yet to find a roots band that deserves this type of fanfare.
Kevin J. Elliott

Michael Franti & Spearhead
All Rebel Rockers
Anti/Boo Boo Wax

As on Michael Franti’s last release with Spearhead, 2006’s Yell Fire, production and a whole lot of rhythm tracks were provided on All Rebel Rockers by the legendary Sly & Robbie. This year’s attempt is not much more successful than their first collaboration. Could it be that they’re actually making Franti’s music worse?

As you might guess from the album’s title, Franti is a little obsessed with evoking classic roots rockers. He’s almost hit a home run with the opener, “Rude Boys Back In Town.” Dubby effects on the tracks take you back to ‘70s Jamaica, and for a moment it seems that Spearhead might pull it off. However, the press materials for the album indicate that Franti was less interested in writing political fire-starters (like he did on the angry, hippy-hop album Stay Human) than he was in making music worth dancing to. That goal is made obnoxiously clear on “Hey World (Remote Control Version),” which is inexplicably set to the rhythm and changes of “The Locomotion.” Call it “Shiny, Happy, Spearhead” and skip it.

After an angsty forbidden love turn on “All I Want Is You,” Franti and company turn back to the classics, re-inventing “The Peppermint Twist” for “Say Hey (I Love You).” The sing-songy verses work it out alright, provided you’re not looking for anything deeper than, as Franti puts it, “a boy meets girl song.” The same goes for “I Got Love For You.” Later, things get serious for a minute on “Hey World (Don’t Give Up Version),” where Franti’s crooning and yearning are so earnest that his voice almost cracks on the line “Hey world ... don’t give up on me, I won’t give up on you.”

The album’s weakest moments are its hardest-rocking. Franti is apparently not meant to have loud guitars dominating his tracks. Every time he tries it (“Soundsystem,” “The Future”) it falls waaaay short. Maybe we should blame his guitar player, Dave Shul. But shouldn’t Sly & Rob have had the ears to nix these tracks? And what are we to make of the lite-weight rocker “Nobody Right Nobody Wrong?” As the album winds down with a guest spot from Zap Mama and a little whistling to remind us of how happy Michael Franti’s lately become, I’m left wishing he had stuck to rebel rockers. Alas and alack, the dance tracks, the hard rock, the lite rock—it all lacks authenticity. Which is strange, considering that Franti has now traveled the world over several times and has been a first-hand witness to all manner of violence. Righteous anger at the world’s politrix used to propel Franti’s songwriting, but for the moment he’s set that aside to twist the night away, and I for one can’t figure out why.
Matt Slaybaugh

Master Slash Slave
Free News Projects

It’s a dangerous thing to openly court comparisons to the ‘80s. In these modern days, it’s almost a cliche. In most cases bands grab some cheap-sounding keyboard lines, throw on some Day-Glo, crank up a drum machine and call it a day. San Francisco band Master Slash Slave seemingly joins the masses. The artwork of its new album, Scandal, features pictures of classic ‘80s synths the Roland Juno 106 and the Oberheim OB-8. The liner notes also reassure the listener that the keyboards are the only two used on the record. Additionally, the opening track is an 8-bit instrumental that would sound perfect on Super Mario Bros. From appearances, it’s not a bad idea to proceed with caution. So how does the record neatly sidestep being a nostalgic fashion trip?

Master Slash Slave is essentially a duo featuring singer/guitarist/synth programmer Matt Jones, a Spinal Tap-like series of drummers and a sense of humor in describing the band as “Kraftwerk and the White Stripes arguing with Interpol over what to wear.” In truth you could substitute the Killers for the White Stripes as the sound of Scandal has more to do with “Mr. Brightside” than a Jack White blues-influenced freak-out. But unlike the Killers, the use of keyboards seems less superfluous and more of a way to fill out the sound. While other bands would use ‘80s technology to inspire movement on the dancefloor, Master Slash Slave use the sounds in more of a rock context. It’s a specific style difference but it removes any irony from the proceedings.

Throughout Scandal Jones sings in the persona of a slightly bitter, rich older man, telling his stories as he navigates his way through life and doomed romance. One of the best examples of this is “Expensive Goodbyes.” In the song his character tells the story of how he and his lover travel around the world screwing each other over before they finally admit that the romance is over. One of the best features is how Jones writes really complete stories in a short amount of time. And he’s also not afraid to throw some humor in the mix as on “Top 8 Ultimatum,” where after giving his laundry list of MySpace drama he demands that “the Internet knows you love me!?

The only place that Master Slash Slave’s Scandal falls short is the times where the production renders some songs as a sonic mush, which does a disservice to the well-thought out arrangements and songwriting. However, with repeated listening Scandal is a welcome surprise.
Dorian S. Ham

Ten Kens
Ten Kens
Fat Cat

With many young bands—and especially with Toronto’s Ten Kens—sometimes the force of ambition and a variety of wild, disparate influence throws up a smokescreen that shields the lasting effects of the actual composition. On the Kens’ self-titled debut, there are obviously too many cooks in the kitchen, as the group attempts to meld chugging metal riffs to syncopated indie tribalism and mathematic post-rock to ambient synergy. The stunning opener “Bear Fight” has plenty to chew on, acknowledging the freewheeling spirit of Animal Collective and remembering how Kurt Cobain made the Melvins’ sludgy crush malleable and melodic. In their element they can create widescreened psychedelia by juxtapositions such as this.

It’s in songs like “Spanish Fly” and “The Alternate Biker” that show chinks in their armor, clinging to a well-worn Middle Eastern motif in the former while spinning amplified circles in the desert sand on the latter. They begin to rely on the novelty of genre skipping to fill in the void. Ten Kens falter when they trip in the pitfalls of picking sound over vision, similar to bands like Muse and Black Mountain, or a much closer comparison, Man Man, who blast through scattershot rip-offs that hold fireworks instead of substance. “Worthless and Oversimplified Ideas” is the great balance that keeps Ten Kens’ roman candles aglow, idiosyncratic pop accented by a mammoth groove. For this their debut is worth the visit, just understand there’s probably a more potent recipe brewing in the lab.
Kevin J. Elliott

Damien Jurado
Caught in the Trees
Secretly Canadian

If Damien Jurado has a weakness, it’s that his singing voice is not unique. Then again, that’s the problem with a lot exceptional songwriters, isn’t it? I’ve always had trouble identifying as his the Jurado songs I don’t know particularly well. Is that Hayden? No, wait ... David Garza? David Bazan? Mark Eitzel? It doesn’t help that Jurado, by simple seniority and process of elimination seems involuntarily obligated to fill the void left by Elliott Smith. Here he his, the serious, studied songwriter who whose gloomy outlook manages to cast its shadow over every release in one way or another, newly challenged to distinguish himself from his peers.

As if responding directly to the challenge Jurado labored for a year over Caught in the Trees, and it’s not hard to imagine that a great number of decent songs found their way to the drawer before this set was settled upon. Each track has a distinct musical identity. As you probably expect, you’ll hear a lot of acoustic guitars, and he enhances the disconsolate mood with a sad-sack string section a bunch of times. But every song finds it’s own groove and has a integrity of its own. We get all sides of the man. From the almost upbeat “Gillian Was a Horse” to the lo-fi flavored “Trials” (the only really Elliot-esque track) to the distorted, heavy steps of “Best Dress”, every song stands on its own, representing a singular part of Jurado’s sound of struggle.

Lyrically, Jurado’s narratives have often been heart-rending, and his path on this record differs only in that the circumstances are less specific, and sometimes disappear completely. On “Last Rights,” he pleads over and over, “Should you ever need me to stick around” over woeful strings, doubling the melody with bandmate Jenna Conrad. Even repeated listens to the song don’t reveal who “you” and “me” are in this case. He gives us a very specific date, and references the title of the previous song on the record, but offers little else by way of exposition. The refrain, though, is emotionally affecting and one can’t help but construct a pitiable story around it.

It would be easy to give Caught in the Trees a cursory listen and declare it more of the same for Jurado. However, as advertised, the record is a step-forward for him as a writer and as a musician. He’s taken a step out ahead of the pack and set himself a new bar to meet on his next outing.
Matt Slaybaugh