The Donnas, Turn 21

For the first 20 seconds of the new Donnas record, The Donnas Turn 21, you’d swear you were hearing AC/DC. Then Donna A’s voice enters with its deadpan delivery and reminds you it’s 20 years later and ladies got balls now. After their heavily Ramones-influenced first record American Teenage Rock N Roll Machine, The Donnas moved to embrace the leather-clad, Hollywood glam rock of a generation before them. 1999’s Get Skintight included a dead-on cover of the Crue’s “Too Fast For Love.” The girls covered Kiss’s “Strutter” for the Detroit Rock City soundtrack. But it’s their own tunes that affirm their dedication to the street-tough metal of the early 1980s.

Thankfully, the themes of The Donnas’s songs haven’t changed much since they began as the Electrocutes. The four girls, Donnas A., C., F., and R., formed in high school to play the songs of their heroes, the Muffs and Shonen Knife. Early material recorded under the names the Electrocutes and The Donnas was sharply punk rock, but it was 1998’s “official” first album, American Teenage Rock N Roll Machine, which marked the development from punk rock to rock ‘n’ roll. That album’s “You Make Me Hot” and “Leather on Leather” have been updated to this year’s “Do You Wanna Hit It” and “Hot Pants.” Criticizing them for rehashing old subject matter would seem to ignore the progress — what began as a slightly amateurish pose has developed into a genuine lifestyle.

The first three tracks on The Donnas Turn 21 offer little new ground. The Donnas go over familiar territory, albeit sounding a bit grittier. But by the fourth track, “Play My Game,” The Donnas set their pace and the next five tracks blow by in a roar of crunchy guitars and catchy hooks. The lyrics are a bit racier than ever before — “I’ll let you flip my flipper / If you let me unzip your zipper” — and the songs a bit more accomplished. “Play My Game” may start with the familiar Ramones-ish chorus chant over a drum beat, but it winds up in a flury of guitar licks that would make C.C. DeVille proud. “Midnight Snack,” a brilliant double entendre if there ever were one, revs up the AC/DC riffs and shows off sharper hooks in its chorus. “Stop Driving Through My Heart” is the album’s rightful centerpiece. Essentially, it’s an easy roll through The Donnas’ best bits. It doesn’t kick as sharply as “Midnight Snack” but it presses all the right buttons. Donna A’s voice is peculiar in its almost-flat deadpan, but it has always added to The Donnas’ style — in the same way that nobody sounds like Joey Ramone, nobody sounds like Donna A. Here in the midst of their catchiest songs ever, she capitalizes on its limitations. “Stop Driving”s simple vocal melody is more sing-along-able than any others here. Its music chugs along like The Donnas’ main influences — punk and metal — but its classic pop feel shows off the band’s understated musical instincts. It catches the listener without banging him over the head with a guitar.

Ending the suite of catchy songs in the middle of the album, “Little Boy” manages to find another gear to shift into. It is preceded by the metal-tinged fade-out of “You’ve Got a Crush on Me,” so its immediate steady-rocking pace catches the listener off guard. As in “Stop Driving Through My Heart,” The Donnas are clever enough to tug the strings without revealing themselves in some gross “Here’s the hook!” shout. In only 1:57, The Donnas rip through a verse so catchy there’s no real chorus. The song turns twice in the middle to modulate into a bridge section whose hook is just as sharp.

The final third of the album offers no drop-off in quality, but rather like the first third, reverts to the familiar tough girl pose. The songs like “Don’t Get Me Busted” and “Police Blitz” (thank God someone found something to rhyme with “Schlitz”), are punchier than they are hooky. Continuing to pay their respects to those who came before them, The Donnas cover Judas Priest’s “Living After Midnight.” Its chorus of “Livin’ after midnight / Rockin’ to the dawn / Lovin’ til the mornin’ / Then I’m gone, I’m gone” pretty much sums up The Donnas’ odes to teenage excess. The final track “Nothing to Do” is a bit overshadowed by the power of Priest which preceded it. It’s a rocker which would probably be better served as an opening track. Still, they go out with fists in the air and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The improvements may be subtle, but at the tender ages of 21, The Donnas have recorded three solid albums for Lookout! Records each reflecting a maturation beyond the leather and lipstick. Let’s just hope no Warrant slips into their record collections.