Something about a black wave sounds so sinister. There isn’t much sinister to Ride the Black Wave, the fourth release from The Donkeys. The album is more like riding a lazy river in a rubber tube: a relaxed, easy-going eleven tracks that let your mind wander through the oh-so ’70s keyboard and sometimes surf-like guitar. There’s a vintage feel to many of the songs, the old-school keyboard even pops up on the more modern tracks. The San Diego-based quartet recently signed to Easy Sound, which is both the name of a record label and a good description of their music. Ride the Black Wave is perfect for unwinding to, just to enjoy and remember the old influences as you try to forget the crappy day you just had.
It’s not very surprising that the band favors an old sound: their only influence listed on Facebook is February 3, 1959, aka The Day the Music Died. The album starts off with “Sunny Daze,” a laid-back track with some surf-influenced guitar. It brings Neil Young to mind. Sticking with the vintage theme, “Bahamas” sounds like it could be adapted to a ‘50s ballad with just few small tweaks. The distorted vocals plead for you to stay with the singer over booming percussion, simple piano, and dreamy backing vocals. “The Manx,” which has no lyrics, allows the guitar and organ/keyboard to shine. It has a touch of The Doors to it, mixed with surf music through the steel guitar and the vocals repeating “la-la-la.” “Brown Eyed Lady” has a 1950s country sound – so much so that it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. This slow country song is plunked into the middle of the album with its tinkling piano and super slow drawl. The distorted track makes you wonder if you’ve just stumbled into an awkward roadside saloon. “Imperial Beach” is packed with Eastern influence including what sounds like a sitar; it would make Donovan proud. Despite its title, the acoustic guitar-driven, folksy “I Love Alabama” is really a love song about a relationship between two humans (no states.) “Blues in the Afternoon” has a flute and vocal harmonies that take you right back to Anchorman’s time period.
There are modern tracks on the album. “Ride the Black Wave” and “Nothing” would each sound at home on an alternative radio station among the likes of the Arctic Monkeys and The Black Keys. Even with those, the vintage keyboard still lingers (it creates a watery, under-the-sea sound for “Ride.”) “Nothing” echoes some of the Eastern influence of “Imperial Beach.” In addition to being the most modern, they’re also the darkest: “Nothing” focuses on doubts and how “nothing good can come of this,” while “Ride” has lines about being suffocated by starfish while on a tripping learning experience with some undersea creatures. It also features a touch of cacophony toward the end, signaling that darker side. “Scissor Me Cigs,” the first single off of the album, isn’t packed with vintage influence either, but it doesn’t stand out. Frankly, I’m surprised that this song has been selected as a single; I actually neglected to make notes on this song on the first two runs through the album simply because it just didn’t stand out the way the others did. It’s a slow, sort-of melancholy song that really sounds like you’re floating down that lazy river while on quaaludes.
Ride the Black Wave is a good album for relaxing after a long day. The vocals are soft, with dreamy backing vocals and lead vocals that can move effortlessly between soft and smooth to seductive and swaggy (listen to “Ride the Black Wave” below for the perfect example of the latter.) Even the distortion used on the album is gentle; the aforementioned cacophony toward the end is distorted to the point that it’s soft and non-threatening. Somehow, despite the random country song thrown in the middle, the new take on a ‘50s ballad, and all that surf music, the album stays cohesive enough that you can just put it on and unwind without overthinking it. So relax with The Donkeys, no quaaludes or lazy rivers required.