With Last Donkey Show, John Wesley Coleman continues his mad rampage though country-hiccupped, psychedelic garage rock. This third solo album, aided by The Gris Gris’s Greg Ashley, as well as members of Strange Boys, Bad Sports, Sir Lord Raven, Golden Boys and Fleshlights, again juxtaposes, cheery, loosely strung but avidly attacked jams with faintly macabre subject matter.
The main change this time is a denser, busier sound. Coleman, with the help of Bad Sports’ Orville Neeley, adds a pawn shop’s worth of vintage keyboards to the mix (Vox, Hammond, piano and possibly others), all banging and twinking and swirling in the background of his Stax-Sun-Roky dance party. There are also saxophones honking and howling – that’s Strange Boys’ Matt Hammer among others – and intervals of surprisingly naked vulnerability. It’s a big glorious mess, this album, sporting a handful of Coleman’s best songs – “Don’t Waste My Time,” “She’s Like Dracula,” and “Clown Gave You a Baby” – alongside jokey throwaways (“Misery Again”) and half-baked meanders (“Running into the Bulls”).
As before, Coleman is in fine, demented voice, yelping and yodeling and warbling above an unruly racket of guitars and organs. He fairly vibrates with feeling as he negotiates songs about the dangerous side of love…a love entwined with death (“My Grave”), the almighty (“Virgin Mary Queen”), and a lurid backwoods surrealism (“A Clown Gave You a Baby”). Coleman veers all over the place, his voice full of eddies and backwashes and bubbles, and you keep expecting him to lose the thread, but he doesn’t.
It probably helps that he has a rock-solid band this time, a Orville Neeley on guitar and keyboards, Jamy Maness on pedal steel, the Fleshlights’ Jeremy Steen on bass and Yamal Said (and also sometimes the ubiquitous Neeley) on drums. A choir of females (the Lyton Springs Vampire Choir Group) murmurs ah-ahs and hah-ahs in Motown-leaning “Animal Bed,” while a three-man backline of reed players adds swaggering sax to Stax-sung-by-a-hillbilly “Howlin’.” “Don’t Waste My Time” is as tight and crisp and relentless as garage punk can be, anchored by unyielding drums and bass, while “My Grave” flowers ornately in a rush of keyboard excess.
The best songs are the ones that rock the hardest, though Coleman clearly retains a fondness for acoustic twang. “My Grave,” swooning with tremolo’d organs , pogo-ing with garage punk energy, turns into a country song, “Flower in the Dark,” late in the album, the same lyrics superimposed on a nakedly vulnerable bed of pedal steel and strumming. The opener explodes with lust, the penultimate version stumbles forward in a blind fug of pain and loss. It’s the same song, the same artist, the same band, swinging way off into risky territory, but bringing it home anyway.
By Jennifer Kelly