The Brooklyn-based yodeler: Mike Donovan and The Shifties
Willoughby Thom | Monday, September 7, 2020
Michael Donovan, the Brooklyn-based yodeler.
I remember the first time ever meeting Mike “Donny” Donovan (’20), former Scene Editor and WVFI Station Manager, at my first Scene meeting in 2019. I vividly recall entering the dark Observer office in the basement of South Dining Hall and seeing a tall, lanky guy sitting at the cluttered Scene desk. He was blasting Car Seat Headrest from the old desktop computer and wearing a windbreaker — or perhaps it was a Car Seat Headrest corduroy sweater — mismatched socks, glasses and messy hair corralled by a red sweatband.
This is Donny.
It was here that I quickly learned he was in a band called The Shifties.
I recently sat down with Donovan for an interview about the band and their debut project “Events, Setbacks, Annoyances.”
Donovan always knew he wanted to start a band. During his first year at Notre Dame, he played in a few bands — Beers with Dad and Foreign Affairs — but it wasn’t until his sophomore year that The Shifites took shape. With a somewhat constant shift of members, Donovan was able to collect an incredibly talented cast of people through the vast underground network that is the Notre Dame music scene. On their new record, the band is comprised of Michael “Donny” Donovan on guitar and vocals, Luke Molinelli (’20) on the bass, Ashley Finster (’21) on the keys, Thomas Weiss (’20) on drums and Daniel Griffin (’21) with the trumpet.
The first official Shifties performance was opening for The Wombats in a sold-out show at Legends.
“Going up to [the show] we didn’t have any songs. I wrote them all in a night,” Donovan said. “It was that one night where I pretty much wrote ‘coffee,’ ‘commoners’ and the first inklings of ‘events, setbacks, annoyances.’”
He went on to say that it was just him “sitting up in the WVFI station with an acoustic guitar, just trying to teach [himself] how to write songs.”
The Shifties, their name originating from a list of 35 ideas, released their debut album “Events, Setbacks, Annoyances,” today, and it’s a lo-fi lover’s dream.
The album begins with the mellow hum of piano and a sense of emptiness. Donovan whispers into the microphone, luring us into the hollowness of the room, but brings a sense of hope in the midst of confusion.
“It will be over in a month or two,” he says, but what are these events, setbacks and annoyances that he is describing? Are they actually going to end? Everything is said to be temporary.
Why is he so hopeful yet so sad?
The album moves onto “coffee,” a staple of the band’s house show setlist. The song took on many forms throughout Donovan’s years at Notre Dame. Unbeknownst to the listener, the “Stranger Things” craze of the time and Special Agent Dale Cooper’s love of coffee inspired this incredible ballad.
An ode to great ’80s pop singers, Donovan’s catchy and rhythmic lyrics, “tailored to mass-appeal,” bring the listener away from the title track and into a new realm. With the chanting of “If I could choose not to choose / I think it’s something that I might do,” — inspired by Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” — you feel a sense of relief in a world that is full of decisions, the relief of indecisions. We are given permission to simply let fate take us, giving into the beautiful chaos of the world.
The album progresses swiftly to the smooth sounds of Donovan’s lo-fi guitar string wiggling and a hint of trumpet calls on “weather (don’t expect a reason).” Here we are submerged in emotion. The listener transported into a space filled with slow-core indie sounds blended with the raw, authentic echoes of the bedroom.
The sounds of “weather (don’t expect a reason)” are elevated on “fuse box,” which adds a more jazz inspired sound, but the project takes a shift with “here, static, elsewhere.” The change in tone comes in a very Car Seat Headrest fashion as the song takes on many forms, moving from soft and monotone to a cacophony of sounds ringing out from every member. With a heavy guitar solo, drums and a change in vocal tone, the track creates a depth like no other.
Unlike The Shifties’ previous track, “borderline” is very similar to the title track. Only 57 seconds long, the ringing of the piano and echoing chamber of words act as palate cleanse before the next message-driven song.
I was particularly moved by the song “evergreen ceilings.” According to Donovan, it was a subconscious rip-off of Paul Westerberg’s “Boring Enormous,” but he felt okay about it since that is exactly what Westerberg used to do to write his own songs.
The steady baseline leads into a crisis. Donovan sings, “I’ve been heading back to the place and the space between / I’m out of whack / broken and misused / what could I do but leave.” We are given a sense of wanting to be accepted, but through this wanting we are unfulfilled.
The chorus brings about an emotional turn, “No use in believing in evergreen ceilings / no use in believing in me.” We are surrounded by lost hope, contrasting the optimism of the title track.
The album concludes with the thoughts of “commoners” and the reflections of “brunch” bound with the reprise of “events, setbacks, annoyances.”
Front to back the project is everything and more than we expected from The Shifties. Their distinct sound produces something that is pop, rock, indie and alternative, yet its own new genre of music. Their influences, indie rock and post-punk bands, have melted into a unique sound that only The Shifties can produce.
With Donovan now residing in New York, the band is based out of Brooklyn, and their debut has been released through Donovan’s new micro-label and zine The Butter.
“Events, Setbacks, Annoyances” is available on all streaming platforms, with proceeds from Bandcamp sales going towards the Color of Change nonprofit organization.
Michael Donovan, the Brooklyn Based Yodeler.
Former WVFI Station Manager and Scene Editor.
Lover of words and groovy tunes.
Guitar string wiggler and existential song writer.
The frontman of The Shifties.