Tanya Donnelly – Lovesongs for Underdogs

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I followed Tanya Donnelly’s solo career with some interest, at least at first. I really wanted her to succeed, as I felt that the second Belly album was unfairly criticized. I used to own her first two solo albums, and then lost interest at the time of acoustic-folk Whiskey Tango Ghost in 2004. The reunion Belly album was okay but sort of disappointing; I am hoping for a true comeback.

What I Think of This Album

This album did not do well with either the public or the critics, and I am not entirely sure why. Tanya Donnelly sometimes sounds tentative and self-conscious here – as if she was a bit unmoored after the implosion of Belly – but on a song-by-song basis, this is a pretty strong collection. The liner notes suggest that the album was put together in disjointed fashion, with three different drummers and two bassists, as well as a veritable salad of producers, mixers, and engineers. So perhaps that is why it lacks cohesion and a guiding vision, not a complaint you could lodge against either Belly album. Nonetheless, there are many great-to-very-good tunes here.

Opener “Pretty Deep” is the highlight for me, a sparkling, driving number with jangly guitars, an expertly fluid bass (by Donnelly’s spouse, Dean Fisher (the Juliana Hatfield Three)), the sharp drumming of David Narcizo (Donnelly’s bandmate in the Throwing Muses), and Donnelly’s astonishing vocals, to say nothing of her strange and strangely compelling lyrics. Donelly turns up the pop on “The Bright Light,” as well as the drama – the equal parts angelic and demonic wail that accompanies the pounding drum and distorted guitar slide intro is eye-opening. Those vocal theatrics serve as a refrain to a song already bursting with ideas and melody. Narcizo continues to impress on “Landspeed Song,” a tune that finds Donnelly straddling her pop inclinations and her artsier tendencies; again, her high, spooky vocalizations are wonderful, and the song is a multifaceted exploration of the push/pull of a relationship. Indeed, much if not all of Lovesongs is about the messiness and complexity of love, even as it lacks a traditional lovesong.

The groan-worthy reference to fictional radio station “WSUK” on “Mysteries of the Unexplained” is a bad sign, but Donnelly pulls out of this nosedive with an engaging chorus and some lovely keyboards-as-strings (though she had actual strings on other tracks); Pixie David Lovering takes over drum duties on this track (and two others). This song veers close to the sound of Belly debut Star.

A completely different sound – sludgy and thick – dominates “Lantern,” and it doesn’t work very well. “Acrobat” is an acoustic number on which Donnelly does some things with her voice that are technically impressive, but overall this is a disturbing and eerie track that proves to be a difficult listen. While at times also borrowing from the sound of early Belly, it is more akin to Kristin Hersh’s songs from the Throwing Muses. Rough-edged “Breathe Around You” repeats the mistake of “Lantern” by marrying Donnelly’s vocals to an abrasive backing track.

Much better is the bright “Bum,” on which the multi-tracked, overlapping vocals weave a sinister but irresistible web, making this something that would have worked well on Belly’s King. “Clipped” is a moody, keyboard-heavy number that Donnelly elevates with her thrilling voice, but the dark, repetitive guitar riff is annoying. For all of the pleasures of delicate, intricate “Goat Girl,” this is the song on which the seams show the most, and one comes away feeling that Donnelly was trying to force something with this one. “Manna” is a beautiful, haunting acoustic piece with gorgeous string work. “Swoon” doesn’t really work for me – I certainly don’t care for the almost-a capella intro, and the rest never takes off, though the (faux?) strings are nice.

The third drummer was Stacy Jones of Letters to Cleo and American Hi-Fi. Among the many people thanked are one-time half-sister and bandmate Kristin Hersh, Madder Rose guitarists Billy Coté and Mary Lorson, and designer Vaughn Oliver of v23. Among the mixers were Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie. Wally Gagel, who has worked with the Old 97’s, Superchunk, Eels, and Best Coast, was a coproducer and played various instruments. Gary Smith (Pixies) was another producer.

The Best Thing About This Album

Donnelly’s voice is a godsend.

Release Date

August, 1997

The Cover Art

Obviously the work of v23, I like the fonts and the blurry image.

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