After years playing the sidekick in stepsister Kristen Hersh’s band Throwing Muses and then Kim Deal’s Breeders, Tonya Donnelly finally stepped forward with her own band Belly and this ambitious debut album. Star is an evocative collection that contains its share of quirky charms, and Donnelly’s strong songwriting and engaging little girl vocals carry most of these songs well above the ordinary. On the down side, Star is sometimes bogged down by its murky production (on which Donnelly’s at times overly twee vocals are often mixed too far back), and several of these songs could use some fleshing out. Star consists primarily of catchy mid-tempo rockers that can be a bit on the grungy side, and subtle slower songs, some of which are dreamy or dirge-like, while others are carried by acoustic guitars and Donnelly’s voice, which is so striking that one wonders why she waited so long to start her own band. She certainly had some solid songs in storage, though only a few of them really stand out from the pack, the best of the bunch being the driving rocker “Dusted” and the gloriously perfect pop of “Feed The Tree,” which became a college radio hit. Other highlights include “Gepetto,” which sports some Bob Mould-like guitar (only not as loud) and poppy “sha la la” vocals, “Slow Dog,” which has more rocking grooves and another catchy sing along chorus, and “Untogether,” a sad, pretty acoustic ballad. Elsewhere, the darker hued tones of tracks such as “Low Red Moon” reveal Donnelly to be far from the cuddly lightweight she’s been accused of being in some quarters, making Star a highly pleasurable rock record with many textures that I believe is just scratching the surface of what Belly can achieve.
King (Sire ‘95) Rating: A-
With new bassist Gail Greenwood in tow, King saw Belly bringing forth a much brighter, more straightforward rock sound, as the crisp, clear production provided by legendary producer Glyn Johns (The Who and Joan Armatrading, among others) puts the songs up front and center, where they consistently shine. Almost every song on this extremely underrated (or at least unfairly overlooked) record is instantly memorable and catchy, beginning with the propulsive “aah”’s of “Puberty” and rarely letting up thereafter. For example, “Seal My Fate” is a great jangly rocker, while “Red” demonstrates the band’s ability to incorporate odd dynamics that still work. The album’s absolute highlight to me is “Silverfish,” a ballad that truly soars, as Donnelly sings her admittedly cryptic lyrics with increased confidence. Continuing the high quality, “Super-Connected” is a catchy and energetic rocker that’s another obvious standout, while “The Bees” has a pretty, melodic guitar jangle and cute “doo doo doo…” chorus. “King” is yet another terrific hard-driving track that all but begs you to sing along with it, while “Now They’ll Sleep” has a groovy rhythm and yet another singable vocal. The album then slows down with the darker, moodier “Untitled and Unsung,” while “L’il Ennio” shows that even the album’s lesser songs can still provide pleasant ear candy, and “Judas My Heart” is an appealingly evocative album ender. Throughout the album, Christopher Gorman’s drums lead the band’s melodic musical attack along with his brother Thomas, who adds expressive guitar work. Their obvious input (along with Greenwood, who adds solid bass work and another voice to the band’s vocal harmonies), plus the fact that six of these 11 songs were co-compositions, proved that Belly were more than merely Donelly’s backing band. As such, the band’s breakup soon afterwards due to this album’s poor commercial reception proved all the more disappointing.
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