Hailing from Palo Alto, California, and obviously being such devoted students of classic hard rock and heavy metal, the Donnas must certainly know about ‘80s Bay Area faves Y&T. After working hard to build a devoted local following during the late ‘70s, the foursome started to make some serious waves in the early ‘80s, their impressive trifecta of Earthshaker, Black Tiger, and Mean Streak skillfully combining the energetic riffs of UK metal’s much-vaunted new wave with a distinctly American swagger and sense of melody. With a killer live show, serious hype, and strong major label support, stardom was within their grasp, but while they scored a couple of minor hit singles and nearly went gold, the music itself was compromised, as the band increasingly became dependent on generic pop metal shtick, from teased hair, to slick production, to songs about rock and the process of rocking. By the time 1987’s awful, shamelessly trite Contagious rolled around, the once venerable Y&T was a shadow of its former self.
A similar situation has befallen the Donnas. Starting just out of high school, the young band captured the attention of many with the charmingly Ramones-esque 1998 self-titled debut, but it wasn’t before long that the Ramones comparisons gave way to the Runaways, as the pop metal influences started creeping in more, thanks in large part to some snarky yet sincere covers of “Too Fast For Love”, “Strutter”, and “Livin’ After Midnight”. After 2001’s likeable Turn 21, the Donnas signed to Atlantic, and while Spend the Night and Gold Medal showed considerable growth in the songwriting department (not to mention an absolute killer of a single in “Take It Off”), the more it was becoming apparent that the abrasiveness was slowly being smoothed over with a corporate rock sheen. While the ladies have ventured out on their own with their self-released seventh album, sadly, they’ve been unable to slow down the downward slide, and despite their best efforts, you guessed it, we’ve been stuck with the Donnas’ own version of Contagious.
Bitchin’ is the sound of a band going through the motions by musicians who should know better. The Donnas’ music has always reveled in the blunt, sexually charged side of arena rock, but all the sauciness and sass of past records has been replaced by tired innuendo and come-ons that sound about as enticing as slurred pick-up lines coming from a drunk middle-aged woman in a dive bar. And no, we’re not talking about Faye Dunaway in Barfly, either. We just want to politely excuse ourselves before they embarrass themselves any further.
Don’t get me wrong, they remain at the core a very good band. Brett Anderson has developed into a strong, charismatic lead singer, a far cry from her perpetually flat vocal style on early albums. Guitarist Allison Robertson gets stronger on each record, her muscular riffs now exclusively hard rock instead of punk. And the rhythm section of bassist Maya Ford and powerhouse drummer Torry Castellano remains a major strength of the band. Toss in a strong knack for catchy choruses, and you should have the formula for a consistently ass-kicking band, but the songwriting on Bitchin’ is too lazy far too often, and the performances are completely devoid of passion.
When the Donnas do get a good idea on Bitchin’, it still comes off as sounding recycled. Take single “Don’t Wait Up For Me”, for instance. A thunderous rave-up replete with handclaps and gang choruses, it’s the clear highlight of the record, but Robertson’s central riff blatantly rips off not one, but two Joan Jett songs in “Do You Wanna Touch Me” and “I Hate Myself For Loving You”. Robertson’s post punk-inspired melodic guitar fills on “Wasted” ring hollow, Anderson’s intentional deadpan delivery on “Love You Till it Hurts” sounds so contrived it’s distracting, and on the ironically titled “Here For the Party”, even Castellano’s cowbell sounds tired. “Girl Talk” boasts a quality chorus, but coming from women aged 27, it panders to the teenage crowd, while “Tonight’s Alright” comes disturbingly close to the wilted sound of hair metal during its early ‘90s death throes.
The band does nail it on a pair of occasions. “When the Show is Over” is a world-weary, jaded number that effectively captures the kind of seedy, nocturnal vibe that bands like Mötley Crüe and Ratt did so well in the early ‘80s, accentuating mood without resorting to power ballad clichés. Meanwhile, “Save Me” is the band’s finest ‘80s rawk homage to date. With it’s snappy central riff (disturbingly similar to Def Leppard’s “Photograph”), reverse snares, and Anderson’s ebullient singing, it exudes the kind of summer vibe that should be dominating this album.
Like so many ‘80s rockers of old, from Y&T to Lita Ford, the Donnas’ attempt at an accessible sound has come at the expense of what made them so appealing in the first place. The talent is there, and the production by Jay Ruston is effectively punchy, but the energy is nowhere to be found. The band is still too young to be considered over the hill, but they had better rediscover that passion soon, because it won’t be long before the crest is in full view.
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// Notes from the Road
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