THE DONNAS HAVE four chords and two emotions: contempt and lustful contempt. They're the bored girls in the schoolyard who have already broken up with you before you ask them out, and they seem to find only mild amusement in the bad-girl excesses they commit (to song), again and again. Fresh out of high school in posh Palo Alto, California, the Donnas make bubblegum punk about cruising the streets for "fresh meat," skipping school to do doughnuts on the neighbors' lawns--pit-stopping just long enough to fuel up on nachos, Hostess, and beer. Their tight-leather personae have obvious charms for the hetero male demographic, which they fix with a zombie stare throughout their new album Get Skintight (Lookout! Records), while never once winking at admiring sisters. "You're a zero on my rock-o-meter," the Donnas deadpan, crushing a lit cigarette in our collective ear.
The problem with this band, if it is a problem, is that if these girls were really the predatory, trashy, liquor-swilling Ratt fans that inhabit their lyrics, they wouldn't be playing this music. In the first place, they wouldn't have had the self-amused sense of pop history to change their first names to Donna--a Heathers spin on the Ramones, who deserve credit for every note and syllable on this album. And if the Donnas were really burnouts, they wouldn't know the Ramones from Mötley Crüe, whose "Too Fast for Love" they cover on Skintight. And they wouldn't be able to write rock anthems with the disarming, minimalist poetry of "Party Action": "He's fine, and it's time/You think you're so hot but he's so mine."
The pleasure in those lines, sung by frontwoman Donna A. (Brett Anderson), is a self-conscious one. Donna number one is a dead ringer for Christina Ricci, so you can imagine her living the lyric, but it still feels like play-acting: Wednesday Addams had more adult menace than this.
The singer does make a perfect Cherie Currie to the Joan Jett of roaring guitarist Donna R. (Allison Robertson). But as packaged as they were, the Runaways still seemed plausible as runaways. The just-as-packaged Donnas (A., R., C., and F.) are very much the middle-class wits who once sang, on their 1995 debut, "I wanna be the Unabomber/History teacher, you're a goner." Without the sense of humor they betray in interviews, the Donnas would be as emotionally monotonous as a Penelope Spheeris doc, with a sound as mindlessly limited in range as the most inebriated AC/DC cover band.
The Donnas are cool, calculated customers. They've described themselves as black-clad outsiders in high school, and now they play the heartless, gum-smacking wenches that the popular girls must have once appeared to be. (The group's changing band titles, from Raggedy Ann to the Electrocutes to the Donnas, suggest a progression in self-esteem.) They even played the prom band in the Rose McGowan dud Jawbreaker, a remake of Heathers that will be remembered as the group's first real gesture toward selling out. Now the Donnas may be just a video away from grabbing Britney Spears by her pigtails and ruling the teen party they were never invited to.
The Donnas perform with openers Boris the Sprinkler and the Crumbs, Sunday, August 1 at First Avenue; (612) 338-8388.
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