Friday, October 9, 2009

October 9: Belly, "Star"

Artist: Belly
Album: Star
Year: 1993
Label: Sire/Reprise

While the early 1990's were dominated by the explosion of grunge and gangsta rap, the truth of the matter is, music was pushing into new territory in every way imaginable. As recording costs plummeted, countless bands, many with brand new sounds and styles, began to emerge. Somewhere within this endless parade of new sounds, there was a small movement of no-frills rock bands who had a very distinctive, dreamy and "indie" feel to them. Along with the likes of Dinosaur Jr. and The Lemonheads among others, Belly is responsible for some of the most catchy, yet undeniably rock and roll songs of the decade. Having severed her ties with Throwing Muses a few years earlier, as well as a brief stint in The Breeders, songstress extraordinaire Tonya Donelly formed Belly, and it was quickly clear that it was one of the most perfect outlets for her amazing, dream-pop writing. Though they do not often receive all the credit they so richly deserve, Belly were one of the bands that undoubtedly kickstarted the "alternative" music movement, and their sound has been copied by countless bands since. Though the band only existed for a few short years, both of the studio records they released are truly fantastic. Every song on both albums is extraordinary, yet it is Belly's 1993 debut, Star, that due to being absolutely musically stunning from end to end, remains one of the greatest recordings of the decade.

Though she may have left the Muses behind, Star was, in fact, produced by the now legendary Gil Norton. Norton produced albums for everyone from The Pixies to Throwing Muses to Pere Ubu, and would later work with the likes of Foo Fighters and Counting Crows among others. Norton's ability to work with such diverse bands, and extract the best that each as to offer is a testament to his amazing talents as a producer. For Star, Norton creates an amazing contrast, with the beautiful voice of Donelly and crisp music of the band still containing an edgy, almost dark feel throughout the album. This fantastic juxtaposition in sound is perhaps no more apparent then on "Every Word," and it helps to make Star one of the most unique albums fo the decade. Though every song on Star is nothing short of superb, the three singles released are among the finest, and two of the most treasured songs of the era. Belly's debut single, "Feed The Tree," quickly found its way to the top of the "Modern Rock" singles chart, and helped to power the album to three Grammy nominations. The song represents everything that there is to love about Belly, with Donelly's gorgeous voice working the entire vocal spectrum as she singles some of her finest lyrics to date. The music, which is almost a strange mixture of The Beatles and R.E.M. is equally fantastic, and the song remains just as enjoyable and exciting today as it did more than fifteen years ago. While "Feed The Tree" perfectly captures everything it meant to be an "alternative" band, the second single, "Gepetto," is an equally wonderful musical experience. Containing one of the brightest and most addictive opening riffs of the decade, the song is a true musical masterpiece. The fact that every song on Star is so fantastic is largely due to the exceptional and visionary talents of each of the four members of the band, though the lineup of the band changed almost immediately after the recording process was completed.

With the amount of sound that is created throughout Star, it is often nothing short of stunning to realize that there are, in fact, only four musicians on the album. Like so many bands, Belly is firmly rooted in the "volume does not equate to emotion" school of thinking, and the rich, complex musical soundscapes that the quartet creates are truly unrivaled. The dual guitar of Donelly and Tom Gorman are absolutely phenomenal, and their tone, as well as the way in which they interact with one another is truly a special sound. Whether it is a slower song like "Low Red Moon," or the hyperactive speed of Star's third single, "Slow Dog," it is very much due to the sometimes crunching, sometimes winding guitar playing that make the songs of Belly so distinctive and enjoyable, and both guitarists are absolutely exceptional on every song. Gorman's organ playing throughout the album is equally fantastic, and the mood he crates on the aforementioned "Low Red Mood" is a magnificent musical moment that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated. Fellow former Throwing Muses member, Fred Abong is equally outstanding on the album, and the chemistry between him and Donelly is quickly apparent. Able to create bright, catchy hooks as perfectly as more looming, darker pieces, Abong's absence on the second Belly album is the key aspect that sets the two records apart. Rounding out the musicians strong of Belly, Tom Gorman's brother, Chris, proves to be one of the most innovative and talented drummers of his generation. Helping to create moods like few other drummers of the era, Gorman has a brilliant sense of power, as well as finding the perfect, sometimes light touches that give extraordinary depth to songs like "Full Moon, Empty Heart." There is not a sub-par musical moment anywhere on Star, and the interaction between the quartet is largely unparalleled by any of their contemporaries.

Though it is certainly thrown around far more than it should be, Tonya Donelly is truly deserving of the title, "musical genius." With seemingly endless creativity and musical vision, it is almost impossible to picture music as we know it today without her contributions. At the core of her stunning talents is her absolutely unparalleled voice. Able to work every area of the vocal scale, it opens up the musical possibilities, as well as giving fantastic diversity to the songs which she writes. From the whispery, soft touches of "Untogether" to the powerful rocking of "Dusted," Donelly shines on every song, and her one-of-a-kind voice remains a true joy to experience time and time again. Along with her sensational voice, Tonya Donelly uses Star to prove that she is undoubtedly at the apex of her writing. As her time in Throwing Muses came to a close, it was clear that she was quickly coming into her own as a writer, and Star contains some of her greatest lyrical moments to date. Whether it is the eerie, dark overtones of "Gepetto" or the deeply introspective title track, Donelly's lyrics transcend generations and rival any words ever written. On "Angel," she spins one of her most simple, yet wonderfully profound lyrics when she sings, "...I've had bad dreams, so bad I threw my pillow away..." Donelly also leaves the listener in awe of her writing ability when she crafts the lines, " retires his wife says, but she was so sad and sick...his heart breaks in the mud...thought I'd leave this world by twenty-one, couldn't leave that dog alone..." on "Slow Dog." It is the subtle brilliance of her words, combined with her awe-inspiring voice that makes Tonya Donelly unequaled in the overall history of music.

Presenting wonderfully complex musical arrangements, along with stunning vocal work, Belly is one of the key bands that is responsible for the success of the "alternative" music scene. Having learned much from her time as a member of Throwing Muses, Donelly is clearly in tune with her talents, and the songs she constructs on Belly's debut record remain among the greatest of the era. Perfectly balancing harder rock and roll overtones with often starkly contrasting softer vocals, there has simply never been another band that even remotely resembles Belly's sensational sound. Creating unparalleled harmonies over the rich musical textures, the quartet clearly possess a very special chemistry with one another. The amazing interaction between Donelly and Tom Gorman is perhaps no better captured then on the acoustic/electric clash on the song "Sad Dress." The duo wind around one another, and their talent and connection stands as one of the finest of the era. Presenting a perfect compliment to their guitar sounds, bassist Fred Abong is as good on Star as anywhere else in his career. With a stunning amount of variance in the musicality, as well as the placement of his basslines, Abong makes a solid case for being one of the finest musicians of his generation. Drummer Chris Gorman is the perfect percussionist for the band, and few drummers have as good a sense of mood as he presents throughout the album. Truly unique in nearly every way possible, Belly's 1993 debut, Star, remains one of the most wonderfully diverse albums of the era, and is unquestionably one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Gepetto," "Slow Dog," and "Feed The Tree."

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