1993, Sire Records. Producer: Belly, Tracy Chisholm and Gil Norton.
IN A NUTSHELL: Star, Belly’s debut record, sounds different enough to be interesting yet retains enough jangle and melody to stay hooked into mainstream rock. It’s truly a showcase for leader Tanya Donelly’s voice, with songs that allow her to vary between sweet purrs and powerful belts while harmonizing beautifully. Guitarist Thomas Gorman’s charming riffs stay in the background so the vocals can shine.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
Obsession. [uh b-sesh-uh n] Noun. The domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc. (From Dictionary.com.)
I’ve heard stories, both troubling and hilarious, regarding individuals’ struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so I don’t want to minimize this awful disease by claiming my idiosyncrasies are symptoms of it. Also, I’ve had sufficient (mild) diagnosed disorders of my own, and so I don’t want to allege any maladies to which I don’t really have a claim. However, in the everyday vernacular used outside a clinical psychiatric setting, I can say without hesitation that I can get obsessed by things.
Foods, shows, writers … in almost any area of human endeavor I can at times find myself pursuing the same ancient, midbrain impulse that compelled my ancestors toward water and shelter instead directed solely on one more Kurt Vonnegut novel or another tube of Tangy Buffalo Wing-flavored Pringles. I can fixate for days at a time, accomplishing work duties and household tasks using some robot-like space in my cerebral cortex while any remaining mindpower is drawing plans for obtaining, building scenarios for experiencing, and reliving satisfactions I’ve received from well-written, deftly humorous pages, or crunching, savoring and fashioning-duckbills-from those unmistakeable potato-paste pressed chips.
Obsessions of this nature generally aren’t harmful, apart from inducing a series of unpleasant visits to the bathroom and a tongue that feels as though it’s been repeatedly scraped against a cheese grater. (In the case of the Pringles, not the Vonnegut.) The effects aren’t long-lasting and often the obsession isn’t, either. A few days after binging, I’ll usually find myself disinterested in what I once desperately craved, and the balloon of desire that once swelled to inhabit nearly every cranny within my consciousness will have burst and withered to a flaccid swath of plastic among all the disregarded and obscure ephemera of my past. Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringles? Did I really ever find these edible?
Some past obsessions leave me regretful, with painful memories. Girls from high school1, disgusting foods and time-wasting TV shows fall into these categories. Some leave me feeling wistful yet confused, as I’ll never again understand what I found so compelling about, for example, word-search puzzles. Others make me happy to recall, as I retain a bit of love for them, even if I no longer feel the magnetic pull they once imparted.
Some of my biggest obsessions have been with individual songs, and these past obsessions fall into all of the above categories. I’ve written many times about my childhood of music and record listening. I’ve been a music fan since I was really young, and I’ve gotten obsessed with many, many songs over the years. The earliest were cuts off my Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert record. But the first song I remember being truly obsessed with, and listening to over and over, was The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which my sister had on a Beatles Greatest Hits (aka “The Blue Album”) 8-Track Tape.
It was sort of spooky sounding, with pinched, distorted vocals and instruments that sounded angular, watery and weird. The drums were somehow spooky, too, particularly throughout the choruses: mesmerizing and tribal. When they combined with the swooping orchestra it created a sound I’d never heard before. I listened as much as I could, which was easier to do – given my proximity to my sister’s 8-Track – than listening to some of the other songs I was obsessed with around that time. I didn’t have the records for Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” or E.L.O.’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” To hear these, I had to listen constantly to the radio, hoping some DJ would find the psychic wavelengths I was sending and answer by spinning the disc. At some point, my other sister recorded “Mr. Blue Sky” from the radio, so at least then I could sometimes sneak a listen. I still enjoy all of these songs, although I wouldn’t say I’m still obsessed.
My freshman year of high school coincided with the launch of MTV, so while I was a fan of heavy rock like Rush and Van Halen, and proggy art-rock like Yes, I spent lots of time watching MTV. And many of my song-obsessions were MTV-video-based. I got obsessed with dozens, I’m sure, the charms of which usually wore off quite quickly. But some have lingered as favorites.
MTV played songs I’d never hear on the radio, so I stayed glued to the screen for hours at a time to catch “Save It For Later,” the ska-tinged English Beat number, with its happy, bouncy beat offset against minor chords from the strings and Dave Wakeling’s distinctive vocal style. Most of the bands with songs I obsessed over were British. When you watched MTV, you had to watch at the top of the hour, as that’s when the VJs would announce, “Coming up this hour videos by Talk Talk and Roxy Music,” bands whose names were never mentioned on the radio stations that reached my antennae. I’d hope for “It’s My Life” and “More Than This,” two songs I couldn’t get enough of. Two songs that were far too weenie and soft and synthesizer-based to share with my hard-rock friends, so I kept my interest to myself. I also obsessed over an obscure single called “Bears” by the obscure metal band Zebra, one of the hair-band clones with a nuts-in-a-vice singer that were becoming popular in the mid-80s.
College was when I really got into The Beatles. I’d say I was obsessed with all of their songs and albums. But what I remember playing most of all was the album Abbey Road, particularly the Side Two medleys, beginning with “Because,” and ending with “Her Majesty.”
These aren’t songs that were played on the radio much, as they are short pieces that blend into others. You’d occasionally hear the Joe Cocker version of “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window.” Every once in a while, if a DJ needed a smoke/bathroom break, you might catch the “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” medley. But songs like “Polythene Pam” and “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Because” were new to me. I practically wore out my Abbey Road cassette. Also during college, I went through a long stretch of playing the Led Zeppelin song “Fool In The Rain” every day. It’s a song I think is just fine today, but my fascination with it is akin to that of the Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringles: did I really need to hear it every day? Just after college, it was the Concrete Blonde song “Joey” that burrowed into and resided within me for several weeks. Johnette Napolitano’s voice, the shimmery, distorted guitar, the 60’s Phil Spector drums … I’m over it now, but I still like the song.
So many other songs triggered my faux OCD in the years after college. I’d regularly dive into a song and wallow there through five or ten plays, and dive in again the next day for weeks at a time. There were two on the Singles movie soundtrack, the first and longest-lasting (I’d say I’m still somewhat obsessed, although I don’t play it five times in a row anymore) is Chris Cornell’s solo piece “Seasons.”
It wasn’t just the voice – one of the best ever in rock, I’ve said – and it wasn’t just the acoustic strumming, and it wasn’t just the hazy lyrics. It was all of it together. I’d generally play it along with the epic Singles track “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” from the tragic band Mother Love Bone. Other songs that commandeered my senses during the 90s were “Regret,” from New Order, a band I’d always dismissed but who I grew to appreciate in my late 40s. Another soundtrack song that remains today one of my all-time favorite songs is from the ubiquitous 90s soundtrack to Pulp Fiction, Maria McKee’s beautiful “If Love Is A Red Dress.”
Since I’ve had kids, most of the songs I’ve become “obsessed” with are songs that my kids have loved. I guess you could say I was obsessed with The Wiggles and The Laurie Berkner Band in the early-to-mid 00s. Never the type of parent to roll my eyes at my kids’ music, I generally tried to get into it a little bit2, and tried to never mock it. So I found myself listening a million times to the songs they listened to a million times, which meant – perhaps – I did become a bit obsessed with, say, “That’s Not My Name,” by The Ting Tings.
I never loved Mika’s “Grace Kelly” or Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” as much as other songs on this list, but they are ingrained in my mind the same way as the others. However, they elicit fond memories of my kids’ childhoods as opposed to fond memories of time spent playing and re-playing them. I can’t really hear them without my mind flipping through an imaginary photo album of my two kids being goofy, funny, wonderful children.
So, you may ask, what’s this got to do with Belly’s record, Star? Well, I made my way to this album through a song I may have been most-obsessed with ever.
Tanya Donnelly, the singer/guitarist/leader of Belly, got her start in the successful 80s college-radio band The Throwing Muses, playing and singing alongside her stepsister, Kristin Hersh. Back in the early 90s I’d heard the band’s name many times. The morning DJs on my local Rock Radio Station at the time used the band as a punchline, incorporating it into lists (“… playing all your favorite rock, from bands like AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Throwing Muses, Aerosmith …”) and fake giveaways (“… first place gets the latest Throwing Muses record; second place gets two Throwing Muses records …”). They were presented as some worthless, sissy, college band, unfit for the macho rock played on the 100,000 Watt Flamethrower, or whatever bullshit tagline marketing had thought up to appeal to the Monster Truck enthusiasts and squealing-guitar fans (myself included) who listened. But I never heard any of their songs.
That is, until 1991, when their album The Real Ramona was released, and I heard Donnelly’s composition “Not Too Soon” played at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ. My band was playing there, and I was drunkenly dancing to Matt Pinfield’s DJ set after the show, and for some reason I heard the song and it immediately grabbed me. It’s the only CD single I’ve ever purchased.
A friend at the time who had some connections in the music industry pointed out to me that The Throwing Muses were “finally putting Tanya’s songs out there,” and said that he thought she was the more talented of the stepsisters. To this day I don’t know anything else about The Throwing Muses except for this song, so I can’t say whether his assessment was accurate. All I can say is that after playing this song a billion times, I was extremely ready to go out and get the first album by Donnelly’s new band3 Belly. When Star was released, I bought it right away.
Belly was getting a lot of airplay from their lead single, the cool, jangly “Feed The Tree.” It’s a good entry point to the album, as it’s got most of everything the album has to offer, plus a super-catchy melody.
For me, the defining characteristic of Belly is Donelly’s voice. In this song, she transitions from gentle, through spirited to full-on belting while providing harmony vocals all throughout. The first two verses are rather quietly, but as she enters the second chorus (1:23) she sings more fully. I also like how she glides up and over the “me and feed” lyrics (1:41), adding an extra note. By the final chorus, at 2:37, she lets loose with a healthy belting voice. Thomas Gorman’s guitar in the song is also really cool, particularly the dripping riff during the first verse (0:26) and elsewhere, and the solo at 1:46 – recorded in an era when guitar solos were about as untrendy as spandex. Her lyrics are also rather Steely Dan-ish in that they tell stories using imagery and indirect phrases (“This little squirrel I used to be/Slammed her bike down the stairs/They put silver where her teeth had been/Baby silver tooth she grins and grins”) but yet still get across a story with feeling – even if you’re never sure what the story is.
A good example of her lyrical style is on the barn-burner “Slow Dog,” which seems to be about a dog that may have been hit by a car and so needs to be put down? According to Donelly, it’s actually about all the ways we punish ourselves. Either way, I sure love singing along to “Maria carry a rifle …”
Gorman’s guitar riff is angular and harsh, and his brother Chris’s drumbeat gives the song an urgency, then turns into a fast shuffle for the choruses. Donelly’s harmonies are really cool over the little guitar figures. It’s a driving song – meaning it’s always driving forward AND I like to listen while I drive. It’s a shout-along melody, with the fun “ah – ah” sections in the chorus. It’s another song that I could see myself being obsessed with, and one of my favorites on the record.
Another song in a similar vein – angular guitars, driving beat – is “Angel.”
This song, however, is much stranger, with starts and stops, and a minor key that gives the song a bit of an eerie sound. I like the guitar line throughout the song and also the harmony vocals. The lyrics are about as obscure as lyrics can get, although the line “I had bad dreams/so bad I threw my pillow away” is pretty cool. This is a record with many odd songs that somehow not only work well, but improve with every listen. “Low Red Moon” is a track that also has an eerie vibe, with Donelly’s sweet voice carrying long stretches (0:18 – 1:14) of empty space that’s afterward filled by pounding drums and shimmering organ, and her full voice. I’ve grown to love this track. “Sad Dress” is another odd one that’s grown on me, a song in 6/8 that bounces above a buzzing guitar. Donelly’s voice is the star, once again, although Tom Gorman does play a nice little solo. The lyrics could be about drug use? Date rape? Simply a bad date? Regardless, if you wish to chew off your foot to get out of a dress, something unhappy is going on.
One of my favorites on the record is a catchy, punchy number that takes a little while to get going. “Full Moon, Empty Heart” features Donelly’s beautiful voice for a minute, then takes off.
There’s a lot of cool guitar feedback and other sounds behind her voice, particularly during the chorus. The lyrics are, well, geez, I don’t know: out the window backwards. It’s an interesting little song that, once again, took a few listens to catch on with me. I think it’s a testament to the record that repeated listens reveal more to enjoy.
One song I’ve loved since I first heard it is the fun, sing-along number “Gepetto.”
The lyrics are all imagery and Pinocchio, with the line “That kid from the bad home came over my house again/Decapitated all my dolls” taking me back to the bullies I knew as a kid. The song has a great beat, and fun “sha-la-la” backing vocals. Belly and Donelly have a penchant for bouncy, fun songs, but they do throw in an aggressive tune once in a while. The ferocious “Dusted” is a good example. It’s short and direct (well, apart from lyrics that may be about a kidnapping?)
I really love the rockin’ and/or weird songs on the album. Some of the slower songs on the album don’t do much for me, although Donelly’s voice and strange arrangements always make things interesting. One gentler song I do love, however, is the ditty about strained relationships (perhaps with frogs and birds?) “Untogether.”
It’s just a simple acoustic guitar with a little steel guitar in the background, but her voice carries it. And the lyrics – once again, I’ll compare them to Donald Fagan’s Steely Dan lyrics – are inscrutable, yet presented as a narrative that the listener should clearly understand. I like how she does that throughout the record. “White Belly” is another slower song that has cool guitar, and once again leaves some empty space for guitar lines (about 1:53) and vocals (2:34) to fill in. Donelly’s voice is great because it can be both airy and powerful, sometimes in the space of a few measures.
The album closes with an entreaty to a significant other, or listener: “Stay.”
The wobbly guitar effects and 60s girl-group riff provide a platform on which the song can build, and it does so subtly and steadily. Donelly’s harmony vocals are outstanding as always, and new sounds are continually incorporated, including a guitar solo about 2:00 that sounds like a violin, and then (I’m pretty sure, though none is listed on the credits) and actual violin. I don’t know who Solomon is, but I’ve grown to love not knowing what her lyrics mean. By about 4 minutes, Donelly proclaims “it’s not time for me to go,” and whenever I listen to this record, this part always makes me want to start it again, back at the beginning.
Most of my obsessions start off intense, then fade away like like so much Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringle-dust in the wind. They’re never long-lasting, and they’re difficult to understand when they’re done. My love for Star is sort of the opposite. It took a little while for me get into the album, but there was always something about the songs and the voice that made me want to listen again. The more I listened, the more I loved it. It’s a different sort of obsession.
“Someone To Die For”
“Low Red Moon”
“Feed The Tree”
“Full Moon, Empty Heart”