Review Summary: Tanya Donelly sets out to make a name for herself as a solo songwriter and for a time, she does. And deservedly so.
At least early on, Tanya Donelly made her career out of playing second fiddle to other female songwriters. First it was Kristin Hersh in Throwing Muses, then Kim Deal in The Breeders. (Interestingly, arguably The Breeders' best album, their debut Pod, came from Donelly's brief stint with the group.) Since those days though she's gone on to do a lot of far less prolific work on her own, although no less reputable. 1993's Star was the first album released by Belly, a group for whom Donelly was the main songwriter.
Short of Pod itself, there is not an album related to Donelly that I enjoy more. Despite coming to prominence in the wake of Nevermind and being placed within the "alternative rock" pantheon, Star makes no concession towards that market. Donelly's reference points seem to primarily be the dreamy pop of groups like Mazzy Star & the folk-rock of Fairport Convention. The Mazzy Star comparison is all too easy to make, truth be told; both groups seek to push simplistic three/four-chord progressions to their limits of melody & tunefulness and in this regard Star is a complete success, such as on 'Angel', where the underlying tension present within the track is accented through tom rolls & Donelly's own gentle cooing contrasting with her harsher spoken word sections.
The track 'Feed the Tree' is perhaps the most instantly gratifying and accessible, giving the band a #1 single on the Billboard Modern Rock charts. The bassline during the verse is very much indicative of the era Donelly was writing for (The first song that comes to mind is 'Free' by The Martinis.) however the chiming guitar arpeggios that flash above it during the verse are anything but. Donelly's self-harmonising comes to the fore during the second instance of the chorus, providing an effective counterpoint to the first. This understanding knowledge of what comprises a successful pop song is exhibited across Star, and shows Donelly to be a rather talented songwriter.
Lyrically, the album is evocative as opposed to explicit. It is easy to understand the implied atmosphere of lines such as "Baby's playing dead in cellar/Gave her water just got paler." however it's much more difficult to understand the implicit meaning of lines such as "He sleeps under stairs/Along with the heirs of nothing/And nothing means no one who cares." However to her credit Donelly's lyrics never seem awkward or forced, instead coming across as simply the thought processes of an individual.
At 15 tracks, Belly comes close to outstaying its welcome. Tracks such as 'Every Word' and 'White Belly' are perhaps two songs too many, however Donelly's voice proves a compelling instrument and is unique enough in and of itself to give the listener reason to continue. To this end Belly is very well-sequenced, the album highlights scattered evenly throughout its running length and the pacing never feeling overly monotonous. To this end, the album finishes with what perhaps sounds most like an album closer, 'Stay'. A slowly plucked arpeggiated, undulating melody contrasts with the elongated, round tones on Donelly's voice as the sparse instrumentation is gradually joined by not only added vocal layers but a drum kit & violin. However the song never rises above its station, content to wallow in its midtempo lament.
Sadly, Belly did not stay & disbanded after one more album. However despite being remembered as a footnote as opposed to a headlining story, Belly rightly deserves to be re-assessed and re-evaluated in a modern context, the post-grunge boom that unfortunately enveloped them resulting in a wave of critical indifference surrounding sophomore effort King. It's perhaps telling then that out of the whole "alternative rock" movement that took hold during the 1990's, Star emerges as one of the most timeless efforts to come from said movement. Highly recommended.