Born With Stripes is not a reference to the flag; not even ironically, jokingly, or out of socio-political commentary. There’s plenty of southland swagger, some balmy, Californian jaunt, something of an acoustic, saloon-door atmosphere, a spot of alt-country jangle and deciduous, Americana-flecked sing-a-longs, but this album is no more a tribute to the American banner for all that.
The Donkeys aren’t that kind of band. They play personal, centralized music stemming from experiences close to home, and they’d never claim to represent a culture. Instead they’d rather write about what they know – themselves, their collective histories, and their self-perception: “I’m just a tiger babe, I was born with stripes” goes the quote in question. The Donkeys hail from San Diego, a city not necessarily known for its roots revivalism, but despite the band’s first impression, they take a subversively wide pop influence – not defined by a singular region or scene.
We’re a little frontloaded here. The Donkeys trot out most of their gems within side one – opener Don’t Know Who We Are persists at a deliberate, but light-footed pace, it snakes with a seductive energy, both fetching and illusive at the same time. It makes for a rather intriguing entrance. It’s followed by the much more direct I Like The Way You Walk – a pastured back-porch jangler, it details the always beguiling heart-mess of being in love with the girl who everyone else is already enthralled with, and its unflattering impact on self-esteem. These guys are storytellers at their finest, and they’re unafraid to reveal their most questionable thoughts and motifs – which produces some meaningful, if provocative music.
Bloodhound, a smoky atmospheric dawdle, is essentially a stalker’s anthem which is played off without much of screwball demeanor. And Kaleidoscope, probably the band’s strongest lyrical achievement, appears to be a narrative of an astronaut coming to terms with his own death while simultaneously being overwhelmed with the magnificent celestial beauty of the cosmos. Not many bands commit to their concepts this thoroughly.
So most of these songs are good – straightforward, but good. The Donkeys seem to pride themselves on their no-nonsense methodology, embracing the meat-and-potatoes essence of solid songwriting, thoughtful lyricism and production competence. But there’s still enough missing here for Born With Stripes to land slightly nettling. Who are The Donkeys? A bunch of San Diegans who range from humid bossa nova to clapboard duster-rock, the elusive answer can be rewardingly simple or frustratingly tame depending on your current mood. It’s especially egregious when they seem content to solidify their name as an impression, like on the tandem “West Coast Raga” and “East Coast Raga” which adopt warped, Technicolor sitars in a way that calls back to the undisguised Beatles songs in a blatantly unnecessary contrivance. Still, the moments that do shine are thoroughly warm; warm in a natural, pretention-dropping way, which seems to be where they’re aiming. If The Donkeys can recreate that feeling a few more times they might be wonderful. For now they’re merely salvageable.