This trio’s amiable mix of thrashily melodic folk-rock and loopy acoustic pop was not unlike that of another San Francisco group, the Cat Heads. (The two shared drummer/singer Melanie Clarin.) What distinguished Donner Party was the agreeably twisted sensibility of main writer/vocalist Samuel Coomes, whose absurdist meditations are endearing without being cloying.
Though both of the original Donner Party albums are eponymously titled, they’re distinctly different. (There was actually a third, which went unreleased until its contents were included on the posthumous retrospective.) The first Donner Party (with the cartoon-montage cover art) is a rough gem, with scrappy rockers like “Oh Esmerelda” and “Godlike Porpoise Head of Blue-Eyed Mary” combining propulsive tunes with whimsical lyrics. The self-explanatory “When You Die Your Eyes Pop Out” reveals a bent for rustic fatalism not unlike the morbid reference of the band’s name.
The second Donner Party (with the 19th-century Edward Hicks cover painting) boasts better sound quality, more stylistic variety and shows the band moving comfortably from DIY inspiration to versatile craftsmanship with no loss of energy or personality. The songwriting is likewise more accomplished, alternating wonder (“Up & Down,” “Try to Imagine a Terrible World”) and dread (“Boxfull of Bones,” “Sickness”), often finding a place where the two overlap.
Coomes eventually relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he worked with Elliott Smith (in and out of Heatmiser) and formed Motorgoat (which became Quasi) with drummer Janet Weiss, to whom he was for a time married.