Shalini’s debut album We Want Jelly Donuts would have almost definitely yielded airplay on college radio and MTV’s 120 Minutes had it come out in the late 1980s or the early-to-mid 1990s, in the periods immediately before and after the explosion of Nirvana. The majority of the songs fit firmly in the latter period, with an “alternative rock” sound in the sense that it meant before Bush, Silverchair, et al, took over. There’s crunchy guitars, a crisp sheen, catchy melodies and understated female vocals, courtesy of Shalini herself, formerly of the bands Vinyl Devotion and Kissyfish.
The late ‘80s college rock side of the band comes mostly from band member Mitch Easter (Let’s Active, Grover member, R.E.M. producer), who wrote four of the 10 songs and produced the album. His songs “Get Free” and “Emotion Bomb” (sung by Shalini, as are all of the album’s songs) have the giddy sense of fun much more common in the ‘80s than the ironic, self-conscious ‘90s. In fact, his songs are by far the highlight here. Shalini’s voice is pretty in a subtle, underplayed way, and the three musicians in the band are not only skilled but have a sense of unity that makes them sound really together and on top of the songs. Yet, the six Shalini-penned songs fit so perfectly into the “alternative rock” sound that they lack the personality or uniqueness they’d need to be sufficiently memorable or interesting.
The difference between Easter’s songs and Shalini’s songs lies not only in the different eras that they draw from, or in the fact that her songs fit much more snugly into a set, relatively mundane format than his, but also in the strength of the both the lyrics and the songs themselves. Easter’s lyrics have a sense of emotional connection and thematic coherence missing from Shalini’s, as evidenced by comparing lines like “The thick and thin / The tried and trusted / What served us well is old and trusted / Still you shine like new, you do” from Easter’s “Get Free” to the lyrics of Shalini’s “My Creepy Emily,” a halfway bitter, halfway indifferent kiss-off to a maybe-friend, or her “This Is Telluride,” which apparently about Christie Brinkley’s plane crashing, though it’s hard to say why or to what purpose.
It seems unfair to turn band members against each other, but We Want Jelly Donuts is such a divided work of art. The album has interesting moments throughout, but a quick, catchy bridge or one right note on a guitar in one of Shalini’s songs doesn’t compare to the witty, pretty pop tune that is Easter’s “Telepathic World,” the album’s high point. There’s nothing unbearable about Shalini’s songs, they’re just not that exciting. It’s not only that by now the slick alternarock thing has been done to death, but that bands like Madder Rose and Magnapop were doing this same sort of thing with a lot more spunk and poetry nearly 10 years ago.