The Donnas are so simple they’re complicated. I mean, so complicated they’re simple. I mean, they’re simple, but the world’s complicated. See what I mean? In an alternate universe, where Pat Benatar earns special issues of Mojo and the Hives open for Sahara Hotnights and Le Tigre’s JD Samson gets the keys to the senior VP’s bathroom at Interscope, the Donnas are, I dunno, Sloan: four capable, reasonably imaginative record nerds with great licks and better hair, there to spin off variations on a theme for an audience more concerned with depth of craft than breadth of vision.
That universe is not ours—thanks a lot, November 2!—so the Donnas don’t enjoy the view from Sloan’s enviable pop-cultural roost. (You can see Robert Pollard’s butt in the shower if you crane your neck, and Mitch Easter sometimes drops by with fresh muffins.) Instead, the Donnas are richer and more famous than Sloan will ever be; from their place you can see Yellowcard shooting hoops and Kelly Clarkson reading her e-mail. But their success has come at a cost: When the band formed in Palo Alto in 1993, they had a Svengali named Darrin Raffaelli who wrote their songs and controlled their image, which means the band’s story since then has been defined by a struggle toward the self-evident autonomy Sloan wake up still caked in from last night’s show.
On one hand, this struggle has been as boring as the phone conversation I had with Avril Lavigne the other day, during which she kept wanting me to undercut her hands-on involvement in the making of Under My Skin. “The reason why it took so long,” Lavigne explained, “is because I had to write all the songs.” The albums the Donnas released on Lookout after parting ways with Raffaelli sound like that quote: competent and goal-oriented, but also airless and a little glum—the grunt work, pretty much, of creative nation-building. (“40 Boys in 40 Nights,” they memorably titled a tune on 2001’s The Donnas Turn 21, inadvertently nailing the disc’s weary, fucked-out fatigue; “Nothing to Do,” they called another one.)
Yet, as with Sloan locked in the basement practicing diminished chords (or whatever), this tedium is what makes the Donnas interesting now. The songs on Gold Medal, the band’s sixth and best album, are about all kinds of stuff: stalking ex-boyfriends, long-distance relationships, foolish hipsters, and as the video for “Fall Behind Me” has it, beautiful flying unicorns who leave psychedelic rainbow trails wherever they go. But what all the songs are really about is proving yourself to someone predisposed to discount your feelings or abilities or sympathies. Frontwoman Brett Anderson sells that idea with a bizarre, perpetually shifting mixture of defiant gumption and accidental sangfroid; she’ll sound distracted, then engaged, then angry, then in over her head. “I’m not obsessed, I could care less,” she sings in “It’s So Hard,” “I just want to get you undressed”; then she admits, “It’s so hard to be on your own when you’re holding it all alone.” In “Out of My Hands” she’s “sick of the state we’re in,” but wonders “what time it is where you are,” when you’re in bed and she’s at a bar. Her use of the second person is as confusing as it is in real life; I genuinely have no idea if “Friends Like Mine” is an indictment of a guy or of the girls who’re supposed to have Anderson’s back.
The other Donnas are less complicated on Gold Medal, which makes the album no simpler. Their craft has gotten way deeper than hey-ho blitzkrieg bop—check the pretty acoustic strums in “The Gold Medal” and desiccated glam gurgle in “Don’t Break Me Down” that make this the best-sounding rock album of the year after the Mooney Suzuki’s Alive & Amplified while still resisting a breadth of vision that record nerds would hold against them. They just want all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas and R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And you.
Donnas play Webster Hall November 30.