[1 November 2009]
It is difficult to listen to the Donnas’ soft porn bubble gum-meets-trash rock if you’re in a chill mood. They bombard you relentlessly with raw guitars and steamy if often trite and shouted lyrics (it should go without saying that “you” is audience-wise male, except for those women who may identify with their seeming sexual power).
This is a band built on the Runaways and early Joan Jett, as far as early female hard rockers, and AC/DC, Kiss, and the Ramones for the male tradition. Their sound was never that much of a musical landmark compared with, for example, the riot girl sound, though their comfortable oscillation between hard rock and melodic pop punk is not without its merits. Yet their attitudes and lyrical level of hormones in over-drive are possibly unprecedented in the female rock genre. While G.G. Allin threatened to sexually abuse his audience, the Donnas play the supreme teasers, maintaining a different kind of power, bordering on intimidation, toward male addressees. They are the sexy trash rock equivalent of vini vidi vici. For partiers, perverts, and the girl power posse, Greatest Hits: Volume 16 is a must have. For everyone else—well, if you don’t love them by now, this ain’t gonna hook your gills. Moreover, its nostalgia may be a turnoff.
The title of this album is tongue in cheek. It refers to the fact that they started as a quintet of teenage girl rockers in Palo Alto, California in 1993. Sixteen years hence, they are still proud, sexy, and tough as ever—big-haired and donning their Motley Crue t-shirts and skin tight jeans. Has their male audience gone from teen boys and Lolita-loving Humbert Humberts to 30-40-something nostalgic fantasizers forever imagining the Donnas as younger than they are?
Greatest Hits features two brand new songs, two unreleased b-sides from their self-released 2007 album Bitchin’, and live versions of hits “Take It Off” and “Fall Behind Me”. In addition, two rare, unreleased tracks from the debut album, The Donnas, appear here: “I Don’t Wanna Break Your Head” and “Teenage Rules”. The Donnas also re-recorded five tracks, remixed one and included alternative versions of “Hey I’m Gonna Be Your Girl” and “I Wanna Be With a Girl Like You” from their Lookout! Records catalog (1998-2001).
The album revs off in a cloud of exhaust with “Get Off”, an excellent choice for a rocking starter that launches their tried and true theme of the trashy but powerful teenage tease. It is immediately followed by the brand new release “Perfect Stranger”, a cut that sounds right out of early ‘80s pop-rock, with reined-in lead vocals and purring backups. It’s quite a break with the past, and, for this listener, both ill-fitting and a bad omen. At this rate they’ll end up like the late Heart practically song-birding “What is love”, light years away from the raw energy of “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda”.
The more aggressive and rare bonus track from one version of 2007’s Bitchin’, “We Own the Night”, quickly recovers the classic rock side of the album and shares the untouchable “strutter” girl power with the other rare track from a version of the same album, “She’s Out of Control”.
The Live tracks “Take It Off” and “Fall Behind Me” are high energy and as good as the album versions, yet are themselves teases for the live visuals, which these temptresses are every bit about as much as the music.
There are a fair number of high school catfight-over-boys songs, such as the classic rockers “Too Bad About Your Girl” and “Fall Behind Me,” as well as the Ramones shoutfest"Get Rid of That Girl”.
Indeed, the album’s content falls between the two simple poles of catfights over boys and sex-tease power trips over boys. It’s hardly a John Hughes film.
There’s a trace of dominatrix to some of these numbers like “Take It Off,” directed at a male audience. Even the next song, “Hey I’m Gonna Be Your Girl”, seems to leave the male listener with no choice (though perhaps the kind of lack of choice the male fantasizes about). It’s more of the same from the previous song: “I get what I want and I like what I see.” The lyrics are often more bubble gum than the sound, but one can’t help wondering if there’s not a statement here: there’s power in trash.
“I Wanna Be With a Girl Like You” is a dead Ramones ringer, sung by original co-writer and producer Darin Raffaelli, here from the male perspective: “You’re the toughest girl in the school / And my mother’s afraid of you”. It’s certainly not a celebration of the delicate, virginal prom queen.
But when the album shifts away from this power trash theme to meditations on high school ennui, the music has an odor of somewhat uncomfortable nostalgia. Witness Bret Anderson whining"I Don’t Wanna Go to School No More”: “I don’t want to grow up well / I just want my Taco Bell.” This is now coming from thirty-year olds. Ditto for “Teenage Rules” and “I Don’t Wanna Break Your Head”, which are otherwise another couple of great Ramones homages. The album ends with “High School Yum Yum”. Is this last song the future? Will their theme forever be “Let’s do the time warp again”? Perverse nostalgia notwithstanding, that would be a better fate than more of “Perfect Stranger”.