Belly – Star

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Belly was beset by bad luck and misunderstanding. Tanya Donnelly came into it with a perennial second banana reputation, due to her roles in both Throwing Muses and the Breeders. But while she may have deferred to step-sister Kristin Hersh in their band, her relationship with Kim Deal was one of equals. Star was intended to be the Donnelly-led second Breeders album after the Deal-helmed Pod, but their schedules after the debut didn’t match up and Donnelly struck out on her own. So Belly seemed like a coming out or declaration of independence when it wasn’t exactly that; Star was a hit, eclipsing the Muses and putting the band at least in the same league with the Breeders. And then it all fell apart, on the heels of a second album that should’ve been more popular than the debut (and which I prefer, personally). While Star was predominantly ghost stories, rotting leaves, and Victorian dolls, King was a rock record about sex and . . . bees. King should have both expanded the audience for Belly and dispelled notions that Donnelly was a sprite who sang about squirrels on bikes; indeed, while Star was perceived as a dreamy Donnelly vehicle, King benefitted from the harder influence of hair-whipping, leg-splayed bassist Gail Greenwood. Yet, King tanked and the band broke up. Until the successful comeback in 2016. None of it makes a ton of sense, but the first two Belly albums are well-worth your time and dollars.

What I Think of This Album

Star has an aura of creepiness to it, as if it had been recorded in a haunted Queen Anne in the Rhode Island woods. This is due in part to the dream pop sonics, but also to Donnelly’s sometimes dark, morbid lyrics and, most of all, to her voice, which she can take up into little girl/wizened witch territory at will (like Victoria Williams, but sweeter) or employ with menace and drama. In fact, Star contains three kinds of songs:  the dark fairy tales, the poppy rockers, and the songs that straddle both styles. In each case, the material is catchy and unique, and is very female-focused in its lyrical content.

Donnelly is the obvious brains here, but a lot of credit goes to the Brothers Gorman, who effortlessly give each kind of song the musical shadings it needs (it’s impossible to know which guitar parts Donnelly and Tom Gorman play, respectively, but the presumption is that Gorman is in the band for a reason – a fact confirmed by live shows). The spiral staircase “Someone to Die For” and the lurching “Every Word” inhabit the spooky world that Donnelly spins out of her nightmares. The same is true of the spare and hypnotic “Witch”, and the witchy and sadly truncated title track.

This material is balanced by the more upbeat, hooky tunefulness of the singles. “Gepetto” pulsates with energy and verve; Donnelly’s backing harmonies are fun and graceful. An atonal, stinging guitar heralds the rambunctious “Slow Dog,” based on misogynist Chinese fiction and involving a dead dog; it’s not the kind of song that should work but it does. Alternative radio hit “Feed the Tree” is confident, cool, and flirty, with some fascinating guitar work from Tom Gorman.

Finally come the songs that inhabit both worlds. “Angel” is sinister, with intimidating guitars and pounding drums; Donnelly goes into her upper ranges for quick coos (and also employs some effective spoken word). There is the deceptively rocking “Dusted,” in whose gnarled lead guitar it is easy to get caught up without noticing the disturbing lyrics (“Grass stains, back burns / She’s just dusted / Leave her”). “Low Red Moon” has ghostly double-tracked vocals, sustained organ chords, and delicate guitar, but also rides a prominent rhythmic wave. “Full Moon, Empty Heart” is much the same, with Donnelly’s voice swooping all over the place while Chris Gorman lays down a syncopated beat for his sibling and Donnelly to dress up with various sounds. And “White Belly” is a ballad that is of a piece with these other songs, notable for slow rolling toms and Donnelly cutting loose on vocals. Similarly, “Sad Dress” is skewered by a distorted guitar lead that changes to a chorused pattern that briefly alters the mood before going back to the driving artsiness of the verses (there is some cool percussion at the end).

Arguably not fitting in to this scheme is “Untogether,” folksy and gauzy (with an Americana guitar part that almost seems parodic) – a true gem that can easily get overlooked on the forest floor of this album – and “Stay,” a beautiful lullaby that makes the most of Donnelly’s ethereal voice, stacking lines on top of each other, against the perfect backdrop of gentle guitar and gorgeous violin. I think the band could have cut a couple of tracks and sequenced the album differently, but this is a fine piece of feminist art with intricately and intelligently constructed songs.

Gil Norton (who had worked on some Throwing Muses albums) was one of the producers.

The Best Thing About This Album

“But I love him dear / And I love him dear / And I’ve loved him hundreds of thousands of years”

Release Date

January, 1993

The Cover Art

Middling. Very much in the 4AD style – while not the work of Vaughn Oliver, the art does come from his v23 graphic design studio. I like the band logo and the fonts used. But the album title is difficult to discern, the plastic ballerinas seem condescending, and the artwork is washed out.

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