Every few years I wonder “What ever happened to Alice Donut?” The Brooklyn band has been around since 1986, putting out 12 albums and countless singles while it did what all good punk bands did back then — toured its ass off all over the world. Led by vocalist Tomas Antona, the band has spent the majority of its career on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, and if any band could personify Biafra’s off-kilter take on music and the world in general, it would be Alice Donut. Just look at some of their album titles: Dork Me Bangladesh, The Untidy Suicides of Your Degenerate Children. Over a decade before emo made the mile-long song title faddish, Alice Donut gave us a little ditty called “The Son of a Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects on His Life While Getting Stoned in the Parking Lot of a Winn Dixie Listening to Metallica”. (Take that, Fall Out Boy!) If Alice Donut didn’t exist, Snakefinger from the Residents would have had to invent them. And they’re back with a new CD, Ten Glorious Animals.
After a long hiatus following their 1996 breakup, the band reformed to release Three Sisters in 2004 and Fuzz in 2006. They occupy that murky grey area of one of those stalwart bands with no real commercial success in over two decades of playing, but sufficient fans dotting the globe to make it worthwhile to persevere. It is a subject that plays out in their lyrics, as Antona and his band mates wryly accept their lot in life on the track “Shiloh”: “Gonna get famous and rich / Got a gig with the Unsane / And 7 Year Bitch.” They know they aren’t going to be the next Green Day, and they’re cool with that. As guitarist Michael Jung said in a 2007 interview, “We weren’t in search of hand jobs or castles. There’s all kinds of popular success. Look at Tom Waits.”
The opening track on Ten Glorious Animals, “Mrs. Carradine”, immediately puts the kibosh on any fleeting notions that the Donut might be going soft in its old age. The off-putting piano riff is positively Michael Meyers-esque, and I’m here to tell you this will not be the feel-good hit of the autumn. However, the song is not about the recently-departed David Carradine, a fact that might surprise Alice Donut fans familiar with the band’s penchant for celebrity-skewering (see “Madonna’s Bombing Sarajevo”, “Sinead O’Connor on TV”). And “Shiloh” is not about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s offspring, so anyone looking for a barbed treatise on the deification of Hollywood children is barking up the wrong tree this time. The one nod to ignominious media figures, “Wide”, sends up Senator Larry Craig’s restroom escapades, but in a nicely oblique way: “Why can’t you bitches get off his back? / He’s got a wide stance / He’s got a wide stance.”
After “Mrs. Carradine”, however, the rest of the album kicks into a much more accessible gear. Tracks like “Old Dominion” and “Prog Jenny” bring just enough Donutty weirdness to remind fans why the band has been so dearly missed, while being conventional enough to hook new listeners who don’t necessarily cotton to wonky time signatures and klezmer solos. Especially satisfying are the songs featuring bassist Sissi Schulmeister’s vocals, like “Don’t I Know”. Closing out the disc is a funky instrumental version of the Pixies oft-covered “Where Is My Mind?”
The lyrics on Ten Glorious Animals are vintage Donut: “She had a face like a Conestoga wagon / Lumpish yet fortified” (from “Lorelei & Henry”), “Prog Jenny at the fronton / With the pimentos and the pom poms / As the Basques play jai alai in Hialeah” (from “Prog Jenny”). But consistent with their last two releases, Ten Glorious Animals keeps it pretty simple. There’s no need for the theatrics and kookiness of 15 years ago, because Alice Donut doesn’t need to impress anyone. Their back catalogue runs the gamut from Beefheart-worthy insanity to the stark simplicity of a cut like “Tiny Ugly World”, (off 1991’s Mule) which might be the greatest song Uncle Tupelo never recorded.
Since the post-modern pendulum has already swung right past the ’80s and brought us to ’90s nostalgia, why not give Alice Donut a spin today? It’s always more gratifying to hear the output of artists who were already productive citizens during that decade, rather than those who came to the sound via their older brother’s record collection. And I guarantee you won’t be able to get the chorus of “Wide” out of your head.