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The musical traditions the Donkeys draw from are pure California, the good vibrations of sunny pop, beach rock, breezy alt-country and psychedelic jams. So then it’s an intriguing curveball to find an identity struggle at the center of the first song on the band’s new Ride the Black Wave. The track opens with a wistfully eyed escape, one that may promise to fill a void: “My heart keeps wonderin’ / wonderin’ who I am / Should I stay in California / should I move to France.”

Curiously enough, the band’s last album, Born With Stripes, opened with a song called “We Don’t Know Who We Are.” But where that song reveled in some tongue-in-cheek, only-in-California metaphors about earthquakes and Hollywood classics, “Sunny Daze” gives the Donkeys’ follow-up a true sense of tension to sit shotgun alongside the breezy So-Cal rock.

Ride the Black Wave is the third full-length releases from new and aptly named Los Angeles-based Easy Sound label, which also includes the like-minded West Coasters Vetiver, Papercuts and the upcoming new project from Eric D. Johnson of the Fruitbats. (In a light-hearted tweet, Johnson calls Easy Sound a “folkish-rockish retirement home.)

“Nothing” dips again into some darker lyrics, on top of a tapestry of psychedelic guitars and a steady tambourine shake: “I’ve been thinking about losing my mind from drinking and going so blind from it all that I can’t see the writing on the wall in front of me.” Meanwhile, “I Heart Alabama” unsurprisingly takes the reins of Ride the Black Wave’s country turn, with a brightly strummed acoustic guitar and the requisite “ooohs” for backing harmony. And the Donkeys again indulge in some instrumentals, like the sitar-infused “Imperial Beach” and the laid-back jangle of “The Manx,” weird detours to unfurl the freak flag, but ones that don’t take you too far off the trail.

Besides the powerful “Sunny Daze,” the album’s best cuts are the pastoral (but tragically short at 1:44) “Blues in the Afternoon,” its blend of vocal harmonies and chiming guitar carrying the beauty of an ocean sunset, and the album closer “Shines,” a sing-along pop triumph as enticing as the Golden State itself.

On their fourth album in a decade, the Donkeys don’t have surprises so much as a more confident and accomplished execution. By the end of Ride the Black Wave, France is but an afterthought, the Donkeys having paid their California dues once again.

Published June 3, 2014 in Blurt Magazine.

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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