The Donner Party – Donner Party Complete Recordings 1987-1989

The Donner Party
Donner Party Complete Recordings 1987-1989

It’s all Nirvana’s fault, really. Before “Nevermind” changed the way the music industry viewed what was then known as “college rock,” bands didn’t stand a chance of gaining widespread acceptance. So they chugged along, doing their own thing, in towns like Minneapolis, Austin, Athens, and for a while, San Francisco. Since they knew they were never going to be big pop stars, a lot of bands felt like it didn’t really matter much what they sounded like, as long as they were having fun.
In the San Francisco of the late 1980’s, The Donner Party were having fun. The three piece band, led by Sam Coomes (now of Quasi and also a member of Elliott Smith’s touring band), made weird, jangly pop influenced as much by their contemporaries in R.E.M. and Husker Du as by sixties pop icons like The Jefferson Airplane and The Beatles. Last year, San Francisco independent label Innerstate Records collected all the band’s material and re-released it as an anthology called “Donner Party Complete Recordings 1987-1989.” This double CD includes both of the band’s released albums, a third, unreleased album, and several live tracks.
When the band’s first self-titled album (they all ended up being self-titled) was released in 1987 on miniscule New York label Cryptovision, The Donner Party had been playing tiny SF clubs like Mabuhay Gardens and Music Works for about a year, part of a burgeoning scene that included bands like Spot 1019, The Ophelias and The Muskrats. The audiences were made up, for the most part, of the other bands on the night’s bill. The majority of the world was sadly unaware of the existence of The Donner Party.
Which is too bad, because that first record of theirs is a little pop gem, and, fortunately enough, it’s included here. Filled with the kind of wordless, crooning choruses that R.E.M. took to the top of the charts around the same time, and rich harmonies between Coomes and drummer Melanie Clarin, who often wore an enormous, bejeweled sombrero onstage, The Donner Party’s long lost first album is a wonder to behold.
Check the one-two punch of the opening pair of songs and you’ll be baffled as to why this band never hit it big: “Before Too Long” begins with an impossibly stretched out, wordless bit of harmony singing that meanders over jagged, chiming guitars before the first verse even kicks in. “Halo” inserts a plunking banjo over a pounding backbeat to create a kind of rollicking Long Ryders-esque sing-along that predates, by a decade or so, the alt-country trend of the last few years. Towards the end of “Halo,” though, comes the first clue as to why you’ve never heard of The Donner Party: Sam Coomes bursts out laughing while he’s singing the chorus, and that laughter is followed by a loud, unidentifiable metallic clang. There are lots of little moments like this one scattered across the record; evidence that the band weren’t taking themselves too seriously. They were making records for themselves and for their friends. Technical perfection was not a concern.
On the third song, an instrumental workout called “Are You In Tune With Yourself?” the band’s true colors start to show. The track floats in on an eastern-tinged, Byrds-like guitar figure, with distorted vocals buried deep in the mix, before slipping, briefly, into a freak-out that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Camper Van Beethoven record. By the fourth track, everything begins to coalesce, with big poppy drums, McCartney-like bass runs and walls of shimmering guitars over trippy, indecipherable vocals, and again you find yourself pondering: “if R.E.M. had such great success with this formula, why not The Donner Party?” …and then you catch the actual words to the soaring, harmony-filled chorus: “God-like porpoise head of blue-eyed Mary,” sung repeatedly, mantra-like, paired with a distorted, Buffalo Tom-like guitar line. It’s catchy as hell, but probably bound to confuse the kids out in the suburbs.
Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, The Donner Party toss you a wicked curveball. “When You Die Your Eyes Pop Out” is a twisted, surreal take on the Peter, Paul and Mary folk song approach that begins, in sparkling two-part harmony, “When you die your eyes pop out / your head becomes a mushy lump / your stomach is an empty sac / and bugs crawl up and down your back.” There is only an acoustic guitar and the rock solid bass playing of Reinhold Johnson for accompaniment. As the song ends, Coomes asks in a timid voice, “How was that?” And then the band launches into an all out Dinosaur Jr. guitar attack on “The Ghost.”
At times it’s tempting to write off The Donner Party as an exercise in silliness. But like their late 80’s contemporaries Thelonious Monster, Too Much Joy or Fetchin’ Bones, The Donners were a seriously talented group who just figured that since they weren’t gonna become millionaires anyway, they might as well have a good time playing the music they wanted to play. Towards that end, elsewhere on the anthology there are some covers that a lot of bands nowadays wouldn’t touch, such as songs by The Who, Leadbelly and Them. There is also “Dansen Gar Pa Svennsta Skar,” an old Swedish folk song that ends the band’s second album. It sounds like it’s being sung by a room full of drunken Swedes watching TV, while someone in the corner tortures an accordion.
In the post-Nirvana rat race that indie rock has become, this approach seems quaint, a “relic of a bygone era,” as Coomes calls it in the anthology’s liner notes. The Donner Party records are charming in their simplicity-not because the music is simple, but because the band clearly made these records for the pure enjoyment of listening to records. As Coomes sings on “Clean Living”: “I will take the high road, I will forsake speed, though I know not where the high road leads.”
For Coomes, the high road led to success in Quasi and with Elliott Smith. For listeners, it leads to a great forgotten treasure that doesn’t have to be overlooked any longer.