On his first full-length under his own name, Durham's Ryan Gustafson eschews the grungy modern rock of Boxbomb, the quartet he fronted for six years until it split a month ago. Don't eulogize too long: Now that Boxbomb's run its course, Gustafson can turn his full attention toward his affection for splendid Americana tunes tempered by classic pop/rock sensibilities. He hinted at all of these things with Boxbomb, and on Donkey LP he's finally landed squarely upon them.
Spirited opener "Soul Train" and penultimate comedown "Sunshine" flash the influence of Gustafson's collaborators in the '60s-obsessed Drughorse Collective, which includes Jeff Crawford, Max Indian leader Carter Gaj, Boxbomb guitarist Rob McFarlane and Beloved/Classic Case's Josh Moore. Though the former plays straight to those vintage pop leanings, the latter takes them for a psychedelic ride, guitars and keys swirling around Gustafson's distant, heavily manipulated vocals. Joe Troop's string play and Heather McEntire's harmonies lift the gentle rock shuffle and fingerpicked guitars of "Let Go" and "Hard Drugs and Long Relationships," respectively. With organ lines that inspect each of Gustafson's dark lyrics and bits of echoed guitar filling in the blank spaces, "Headlights" serves as moody centerpiece, a dark, resonant center of gravity.
Gustafson hasn't left the hard rock behind, though: "South America" forsakes the surfeit of restraint, building on Southern-rock-flavored guitar harmonies and climaxing with the twisting interplay of a dual guitar attack. The huge, soaring refrain of "Don't Sell Your Soul" comes backed by a big beat, which recalls Boxbomb's arena aspirations, had they come from the '80s. Gustafson was able to produce a fine debut on the back burner. Now that he can focus solely on his solo work, he's got a lot more of our attention.
Ryan Gustafson celebrates the release of Donkey LP with a show at Local 506 Friday, Sept. 11. Mount Moriah and Mandolin Orange open the 9:30 p.m. show.