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Belly "Star" Sire/Reprise

February 11, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

Long the overshadowed sidekick in Throwing Muses and the Breeders, Tanya Donelly makes such a confident debut as leader and creative fulcrum of her new band, Belly, that she almost undermines the irony in the album's title.

The record's strength isn't exactly a surprise: In her tenure with Throwing Muses, Donelly had enough turns in the spotlight to establish her gift for fractured but alluring pop melody, and an airy-breathy voice that, first heard on record in 1985, is the prototype for such subsequent alternative-rock nightingales as Juliana Hatfield and the Sundays' Harriet Wheeler.

In Belly (where she gets help from brothers Chris and Thomas Gorman and Fred Abong, a fellow Muses alumnus who left after "Star" was recorded), Donelly doesn't veer far from the Throwing Muses methodology established mainly by her former partner, Kristen Hersh. Lyrics are carried by symbols and images rather than narratives and clear declarations, and sometimes they are virtually inscrutable. Most of the time, though, Belly's songs resonate with meanings and open up to close attention. Donelly's style may be in a parallel orbit to Hersh's, but less-jagged structures, more mellifluous melodies and multitracked harmonies that reveal an appreciation for Phil Spector allow these songs to radiate greater accessibility.

Like most albums that strive for excellence, this one has a sense of unity; Donelly has a story to tell. "Star" is dreamlike, dotted with disquieting lullabies and off-kilter waltzes in which the protagonists seem beyond sadness and on the verge of emotional collapse. But there's also a clear sense that the characters are resisting the frightening dream world alluded to in several songs, and finding insights that give strength. By the last, graceful waltz, "Stay," Donelly appears to have come to an understanding that allows a moment of peace and calm, even if the knowledge she has gained is knowledge of deep sadness and loss.

The album's highlights are many. "Low Red Moon" weaves a more vivid tapestry of spooky romanticism in a few minutes than the film "Bram Stoker's Dracula" did in three hours. "Feed the Tree" is the best of several catchy riff-rockers that crackle with drama. "Full Moon, Empty Heart" is a pretty, sympathetic, but never sentimentalized portrait of grief. "Untogether," with its moaning, countrified acoustic slide guitar, is a worthy thematic and stylistic heir to the Rolling Stones' great ballad of dejection, "No Expectations."

In the grunge era, we've seen bands such as L7, Hole and Babes in Toyland emerge, all predicated on the idea that a female rocker is being most honest if she simply vomits forth raw, ugly and loud all the bile that's in her. What a pleasure to hear a young veteran who knows enough to let these things gestate in the Belly, until they've taken the shape of fully-realized songs that claim the beauty of melody and harmony as rock's birthright.

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