Belly - Star - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Belly - Star

by Justin Pearson Rating:10 Release Date:2016-07-15

To coincide with the recent announcement that 90's alt-rock/dream-pop act Belly are reuniting and kicking off a tour, indie label legend 4AD will be reissuing Star on white marbled vinyl with a bonus CD of the album including updated artwork. Packaging details aside, it's a cause for celebration, as a new generation will hopefully discover this essential gem if they haven't already. Having already proved her worth as a founding member of both Throwing Muses and The Breeders - fantastic bands in and of themselves - Tanya Donelly truly made her mark as the frontwoman of Belly, and Star is where she and her band reached their creative peak. It's one of the strongest debuts of the 90's (or any decade for that matter), and they would follow it up with 1995's excellent King before eventually disbanding.

But Star is truly special, and a record to be lauded more highly than its follow up. Not only are these songs unique and original, but pretty damn catchy too, marrying an angsty, punk-like confidence to tightly produced pop/rock. Each song is at turns both musically and lyrically memorable, with standout songwriting from beginning to end.

Some of the best moments are found in the album's shortest tracks. 'Witch' and 'Star' both make a powerful impact even though brief, but opener 'Someone to Die For' shines even more as a folky, baroque-styled lullaby with precise guitar plucks augmenting Donelly's coy singing style.

Sharp, smart guitar riffs are to be found everywhere, whether in the stampeding rush of 'Angel', the wobbly surf hook of 'Dusted', or the clean, full-steam-ahead pop of Gepetto and Slow Dog, the latter chugging along in an addicting, off-key bliss. Even more slick is 'Feed the Tree' with its lucid bursts of swirling guitar that compliment the song's imagery of a bloody tree that "spins round and round." It's the euphoric high point of the album, and it belies its broken-hearted, messy relationship theme.

Pitchfork recently published an article on whistling in songs as something to generally be avoided. That kind of derision need not apply on 'Every Word.' The sappy sweetness that might have been is turned down a pitch or two in exchange for a slow, lazy whistle that duets with an electric guitar, lending it a strangely discordant eeriness.

Bizarre, unforgettable lyrics also add to the mystique of the album. Pungently poetic, and most likely arising from Donelly's personal life, much of the meaning is hidden under the veil of metaphor, which can be at turns both fun and freightening. 'Gepetto' sees its song's antagonist as a decapitator of dolls, while the bullet riddled pooch of 'Slow Dog' has "see-through skin." The slow-drag tempo of 'White Belly' makes its most notable line that much more potent: "Rode in on the back of a heart attack." An ominous organ works to highlight the heavy, encroaching "Low Red Moon" of the same-named track.

Where Donelly's sensibility as a writer really culminates is on 'Stay.' Is it a meditation on death? The death of a pet? ("He sleeps under stairs" being a clue) Or is it merely about a lover? Whatever its meaning, it's a fitting comedown on a record with such an array of whirling styles and emotions. If ever a song embodied a communal, lighters-in-the-air aura, this is it: "Solomon dives for that big dusty pearl/ Solomon sighs and knows he's older than me/ Sleeps with the fishes soon/ Solomon crawls on the belly of God/ Solomon falls on his face in love with me/ He grows as old as the sea/ Deep where the fishes are."

I had forgotten how utterly amazing this album was. I clearly - and fondly - remember being a teenager in my room playing it almost every day. It reminds me of the time when "alternative" had just entered the lingo and was cool: just accessible enough so as not to exclude everyone, but edgy enough to brag to your friends about what you were listening to. Hearing it again now in the context of the DIY internet era, it still holds power as something to be looked up to and revered, as the era of its birth wasn't always kind to bands that tried to break the mold - they pretty much either sunk or swam ahead of the current in those days. But like that sky-born object it's named after, Star sits high in the firmament of like-minded, forward-thinking albums of yesterday and today. It twinkles even brighter now due to its wise, ripened age, and still feels just as fresh and fantastic as when it first arrived 23 years ago.

Comments (7)

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Great album, wonderful review and a perfect 50th birthday (today!) present to Tanya

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Great review!!!

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Thanks! I'm a little biased, as it's one of my favorites

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On the whistling issue, have a listen to 'Name on a Matchbook' by Springtime Carnivore - proof that all you need to make it work is a good tune!

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And good whistling!

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Good Review. Her half-sister, Kristin Hersh's albums deserve a re-issue as well, and Donelly's solo albums are great.

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