THE DONNER PARTY
Complete Recordings 1987-1989 (Innerstate)
These days, Quasi’s Sam Coomes has gained a justified reputation as a wordsmith, but my favorite-ever lyric by his first band, the Donner Party, is the first one you hear on their first album. Following some emphatically strummed chords and an explosive drum volley, Coomes and drummer/vocalist Melanie Clarin let loose the most plaintive, roaringly harmonious “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!” you’ve ever heard, like an Appalachian Hüsker Dü in full cry. There are more words as the song goes on, but the real point of “Before Too Long” is that glorious, life-affirming “Oh!”
The Donner Party never topped that initial moment, but they were mighty good for most of their career. My memories are of a band that rarely played out; when they did, few people showed up. Already relegated to a side project by the time they began recording (by 1986, Clarin was also playing in the slightly more ambitious Catheads), the Donners never pretended to be anything more than a labor of love (or, as Coomes puts it in his wry liner notes, “an inexplicable compulsion”)—which was why it was always a shock to encounter the forceful yet offhand brilliance of their live shows and their astounding debut album, originally released on Cryptovision, a label I’d never heard of before (or since).
On this double-CD compilation of every available recording of the Donner Party (a fortunate side effect of Quasi’s growing popularity), that album holds up very well, showcasing the talents of this shy, unassuming bunch. Coomes’ nervous warble, casually deft guitar, and silly lyrics (thinly masking an undercurrent of childlike existential terror) were matched by his colleagues’ strong backing and Clarin’s spot-on harmonies and augmented by the trio’s multi-instrumental abilities: Clarin on accordion; Coomes on melodic bass, scratchy fiddle, and banjo (his later mastery of keyboards is rarely in evidence here); bassist Reinhold Johnson on guitar when he and Coomes switched roles on his occasional instrumental numbers. Songs ranged from catchy, blasting punk-rock to country and folk excursions whose committed execution belied the japery of their lyrics. The band could move you to tears with “The Owl Of Minerva,” whose lyrics are still a riddle to me, or have you jumping up and down to “The Ghost,” whose anthemic chorus amounts to “How’d you like to see Madonna/the barber/the doctor? Oh no, I’d rather not!”
The small circle of Donner Party fans included members of Camper Van Beethoven, who knew kindred spirits when they heard them, and the second album came out on Rough Trade’s CVB imprint Pitch-A-Tent. I was a bit put off by this one at the time, though it sounds a lot better now. To my more self-serious 1988 ears, the band came off a bit smug, as though some of that David Lowery attitude had rubbed off in the worst way, and the humor seemed to have lost some charm. Listening now, I hear some of the Donners’ best songs (“Sickness,” “Boxful Of Bones,” and the mournful/hilarious “When I Was A Baby”), and the good stuff far outweighs an occasional dud like “Trust In Henry.” Even “Would You Like To Have Something To Eat?”—a song I originally dismissed—now sounds like a lost track from Village Green Preservation Society, and I crack up at the deadpan “Food is so important/it’s a basic human need.” And in retrospect “Treepig,” with its frightened lyrics and heavy riffing degenerating into noise, could be a template for Nirvana’s first album (and serves as a preview of Coomes’ somewhat misguided forays into “grunge” with Motorgoat and Heatmiser).
Which brings us to that never-released third album. How does it add to the legacy? It doesn’t, really. The songs sound like half-formed leftovers thrown together by a band on their last legs who aren’t having much fun anymore. The best tunes are faint echoes of better previous ones, and fragments are filled out by random noodling, flat jokes, and aimless rock gestures. The debut’s incredible oh’s seem very far away. I love Reinhold’s hyperactive instrumental “Nutty Booty” and little else, not even the rendition of “Goodnight Irene.” It’s clear why the band hadn’t wanted this album released. Fortunately, a fun recording of a spirited live show follows (the “Squeeze Box” cover is ridiculously excellent), serving as a reminder of why, warts and all, this reissue project is a treasure.