Shambolic And Other Love Songs - Donovan's Brain (Career Records)
If “Shambolic” needed a Facebook relationship status, it would use “It’s Complicated”.
It's a reconstructed Donovan’s Brain record, not intentionally written as a “concept album”, but becoming one along the way. It was recorded over the space of many sessions and three years, only to be left unfinished and abandoned for a decade-and-a-half.
The name’s a misnomer. It’s no shambles by any stretch, more a twisting and turning trip, set to words and music by principal band member Ron Sanchez.
We’ve heard six of these tracks before in other versions on an album called “Carelessly Restored Art” (the pick of which are “Pollyanna”, “Perky Pat” and “50,000 Years Before My Time”.) They sound different here, sometimes markedly so. Donovan’s Brain is a long-running collective, with a 20-plus-year history and more members than a gigolos convention, and tends to do things the way its members want to at any given time.
So a bit more back-story: Intended as a demo for the band's first release, the tracks that make up “Shambolic” were recorded by himself playing everything and set aside while Sanchez dealt with other things (producing a record for Welsh psych band Man, a relationship bust-up.) Ron then and still does lived in Bozeman, Montana, which is as far off the beaten track in America as you can be without becoming fodder for a backwoods reality TV show.
Although Donovan's Brain had grown into a collective over the years with a string of releases, it ex-Atomic Rooster/Spinal Tap drummer Ric Parnell coming to share the same zip code that was the cue for the unfinished tracks to be completed, and the whole project to be re-mixed and/or tarted up.
What you end up with is a 20-song opus, some of it rooted in reality and much drawn from dreams or musings. That it’s a break-up album is not all that apparent. Parnell’s drumming and Sanchez’s singing are the common thread.
Where some Donovan’s Brain albums have lacked a centre as space was given over to the individual talents of some of the players, this one doesn’t. The occasional alternate vocal (Jim Kehoe takes over on his own “Cary Grant”) or guitarist (Colter Lanagan pops up on t”Sleep Deep” and the layered “Pollyanna Disillusioned”) still occurs but it's clearly a Ron Sanchez record.
These songs were originally recorded to six track and while it might have been tempting to take things a few steps further than overdubs or replaced bass-lines, they remain largely as they were. They swing from baroque pop to soaring, dark pop-rock. Within such diversity lies the beauty.
The influences might surprise. Ron name-drops Johnny Thunders and the Groovies, and says the band was asked to play in the style of Family, the Pretty Things and Teenage Fanclub and Family at various stages. I can hear those last two but we’re all really clutching at straws when we get too hung up on these things. Your take-out could be very different, and that’s a plus.
In the end,“Shambolic” is a broad-ranging listen that challenges you to pin your own tail on the musical donkey. Much as its re-makers intended it to be, I’d bet.