Playing God
Belly: Star

how ignominious! Tanya Donnelly stepped out from Throwing Muses to get more of her songs recorded with The Breeders, and ended up with even fewer, umm, none, making it to release. What to do? She formed a new band, and wrote all the material herself. Despite the mostly solid songcraft, hindsight suggests that this minor classic could’ve been better.

Given circumstances, it’s easy to sympathize if Tanya seems to have had a slight chip on her shoulder. She wanted to spotlight her material, so a couple outstanding covers were left languishing on b-sides. Many artists are opposed to their inclusion on general principal, but a couple exceptions would have made Belly’s debut seem more self \-assured. Additionally, the album’s pacing is almost willfully jumpy, as if defying the listener to settle in. There are plenty of twists, both lyrical and musical, to give the listener pause without distraction from unsettling transitions.

I only see fit to leave off three of the album’s original tracks; the rest of this makeover can be accomplished with a bit of resequencing and several excellent b-sides. Yes, I left off “Feed the Tree.” It should have been a non-album double A-side, or the cd equivalent, with “It’s Not Unusual”. That way it could’ve been frisbeed after the 10th hearing or so with no regrettable loss. It just doesn’t hold up to repeated listening the way the other potential pop hits do. “Low Red Moon” doesn’t make the cut due to length and repetition; it’s got a good sound, but isn’t particularly distinguished. Finally, opener “Someone to Die For” seems tacked on merely to provide contrast.

01. Angel (album track)
With guitar providing one sustained note followed by several more layers leading into a pounding rhythm section, this hardly needs an intro. It makes a much more auspicious start for an artist declaring independence, and is one of the band’s crunchier numbers, inasmuch as they actually rock. It’s one of their big appeals—they’re rock for the pop crowd, clean and polished, never quite cutting loose.

02. Dusted (album track)
A startlingly chunky bassline and again, almost rocking guitar attack keep the mood going. The parts interlock tightly, providing a propulsive background to a moody lead vocal. After “Angel” gets the blood flowing, this gets us up to full speed.

03. Every Word (album track)
Throttling back a little is a very insular, slow-burning track that rounds out one of only two runs left intact from the original sequencing. After a forlorn intro, it even devolves into a heavy nod to grunge on the way out, grinding nearly to a halt.

04. Full Moon, Empty Heart (album track)
This one’s moved forward to provide a better transition to the following track. With its slow, wistful intro that picks up into a sweet kicky pop tune, it does the trick. It’s also one of Belly’s defining moments. All off-kilter shuffle and straining falsetto “whoo-whoo’s”, lines like “out the window backwards” and “stick your finger in your eye, that’s the only way you’ll cry”, it’s them at their most acridly whimsical.

05. Gepetto (album track)
Their most unabashedly happy-sounding song from this era, it sounds like two kids skipping down a big hill together. Lyrically, it’s a bit hard to parse, but it still sounds like a great pop gem years later.

06. Witch (album track)
After only one pop track, this made for a sudden down note. After two, it performs as an acceptable breather, its delicacy more welcome, its variety more needed. Lest we forget, this was the era of dream-pop, and on 4AD. This gorgeous little guitar round helps to provide some of that context, as well as providing a great intro for

07. Trust in Me (Feed the Tree b-side)
One of two covers to make this edition, it’s slinky and sinuous, as befits Kaa’s song from The Jungle Book. One problem with the released album, hopefully remedied here, is that it downplayed the sensual aspect of a relationship for the emotional and mental. While the lyrical topic is trust, there’s certainly a great deal of tension going on here with the loping drums and gently whammied guitars.

08. Sexy S (Gepetto b-side)
With the seduction accomplished, we come to the most straightforwardly sexual song from the band. No stop and start, no parts dropping in and out, just a driving rhythm with lines ranging from somewhat to very suggestive. The one part that deviates from the pattern is a marvelously flailing, incohate guitar squall that builds toward explosion as the song ends. “When I touch you there” indeed…

09. Slow Dog (album track)
In this utterly charming song, the band starts out sounding miniscule, and ends up sounding like they’ve been blown to larger proportions. Another jangly sing-along, if only one could figure out what she was singing about. No matter, it keeps picking up to a dizzying pace, and a very abrupt ending.

10. White Belly (album track)
Another of the band’s strongest moments: “That was some hurricane—rolled in on the back of a heart attack. Made a mistake on a fire escape in San Francisco—worked my way back in a hallway in L.A.”. A wildly moody piece, and it is reminiscent of a stormy sky. Find it even if you’re not a fan.

11. Untogether (album track)
A beautiful country-folk number enhanced with some slide-like work. It’s also one of the more narrative songs on the album; they mostly seem autobiographical, but comprehensible only to Tanya. This one’s more universal; understandable by anyone who’s ever ended a relationship based on the fact that they’ve been asked much more than they were capable of.

12. Star (album track)
Another pretty guitar filigree, this time enlivened by an upper register vocal, it comes and goes very quickly, but forms a perfect segue between its surrounding tracks. The final track of the second run of songs to survive as-is from the official release.

13. Hot Burrito #1 (Gepetto b-side)
The second cover, this time of a Gram Parsons classic, is one of Tanya’s most emotionally vulnerable vocal performances on record. She goes from near whisper to delicate vibrato (occasionally double-tracked) to a fairly forceful delivery of the final “You know I’m not that kind of guy”. The band follows her with restraint but not hesitancy, and do a great job of being both faithful to the original and making it their own.

14. Sad Dress (album track)
Back to rock for a moment, this one lopes out nicely, being somewhat reminiscent of Throwing Muses. The waltz-time helps fit it in nicely in this part of the album, while tying back to the harder first half. It still provides a lift before the most pleasantly tranquil song on the album.

15. Stay (album track)
A bit long, but hard to usurp as closer. It earns its stay by going through several movements, with some beautiful harmonic work. The fiddle is used judiciously, keeping the song sweet instead of saccharine. The country influence on this and other tracks humanizes the band a bit more, emphasizing their capacity for earthiness and providing ballast to some of their more pixie-dust sprinkled moments.

Buy it at Insound!

By: Dan Miron
Published on: 2005-06-06
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