Donner Party: Complete Recordings 1987-1989

[26 March 2000]

By Charlotte Robinson

Compiling all the Donner Party’s recordings was obviously a labor of love, as the now-defunct San Francisco trio hardly has enough fans to arouse more than marginal interest in this collection. In his liner notes, frontman Sam Coomes expresses bewilderment about the need for such a compilation, chalking it up to nostalgia for a time when there was little mainstream interest in alternative music and groups like the Donner Party played for personal, not professional, reasons. Coomes’ assessment is right on the mark. The fact that the Donner Party had the audacity to make music so unpolished and quirky is central to its appeal. A group such as this could hardly exist in today’s climate, which forces most groups into trying to make it or trying desperately to prove they don’t care about making it by eschewing pop dynamics altogether.

When the Donner Party recorded a decade ago, an alternative band didn’t have a snowball’s chance of scoring a hit, which left them free to follow their own skewed pop path. The evidence is presented on Complete Recordings, which collects the trio’s three albums (one of which was previously unreleased) and several live tracks. Stylistically, the three albums are fairly similar, the main difference being that the second and third LPs branch out into skewed folk, mid-tempo pop, and hard rock.

The majority of material comprising the first album, however, sounds like a long-lost R.E.M. bootleg featuring Coomes as a more relaxed, if equally odd, Michael Stipe. While the clumsy beats, jangly guitars, and muffled vocals might bring to mind the Athens legends in their youth, the Donner Party are much more willing to display their sense of humor. This is obvious on songs like “Why Bother,” which starts with a silly piano intro, features lyrics like, “Everything we make is just a useless pile of junk,” and ends with Coomes and bandmate Melanie Clarin holding the final note until they erupt in giggles.

The other predominant style on Complete Recordings is a very perverse take on folk, with lyrics owing more to Jonathan Richman and Mr. Rogers than Bob Dylan. “When You Die Your Eyes Pop Out,” as one would expect, muses on the complexities of being an ex-person, while the goofy “Would You Like to Have Something to Eat?” is little more than a dinner invitation set to music.

Ultimately, the only real problem with this collection is its thoroughness. While the Donner Party was undoubtedly an underrated, fantastically twisted band, even the sacred Beatles caught criticism for the completist nature of their anthology projects. Including three albums plus eight live tracks reeks of overkill, especially since the poor-quality live material does nothing to enhance the listener’s understanding of the group. A more concise collection would have been better, but given the strength of the Donner Party’s material, this disc should be a welcome addition to any indie fan’s collection.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/donnerparty-complete/