As if to make it easier for those post-graduates who never understood what all the hoohah was about Throwing Muses, Belly — the band formed by Rhode Island singer/guitarist Tanya Donelly after tasting freedom in the Breeders — gets down to pop tacks with a minimum of airy artiness. The band sets its table with the snappy beats, forthright presentation and tangible melodies that were never indispensable to the Throwing Muses lifestyle.
Joined by brothers Tom (guitar) and Chris (drums) Gorman, with former Musemate Fred Abong playing bass in the studio, Donelly didn’t cut the stylistic cord completely at first. Slow Dust, a four-song EP produced in Liverpool by old studio friend Gil Norton, raises the music’s rock quotient without fully extracting the wispy preciousness from its vocal component. Still, it contains the potent “Dusted,” the memorable “Slow Dog” and “Low Red Moon” to demonstrate the catchy accessibility and tuneful fortitude that would separate the sound of Belly from its predecessor.
Star folds those three tracks and a session leftover — “Feed the Tree,” a jangly hookfest that made Belly’s career when released as the album’s first single — together with the eleven produced in Nashville by the trio and engineer Tracy Chisholm. Donelly, who was the junior writing partner to stepsister Kristin Hersh in Throwing Muses, makes a few missteps on the way to finding her feet as a strong creative leader. But the album gains stylish intrigue from her elliptical, disquieting lyrics (“Baby’s playing dead in the cellar/Gave her water, just got paler/Grass stains, back burns, she’s a screamer/She’s just dusted, leave her”) and adequate sonic allure from arrangements that embellish her airy melodies with overdubbed harmony vocals and subtle instrumental accessories. Still, the sense of a new band searching out its stylistic voice on the fly compromises the most poised creations (“Full Moon, Empty Heart,” “White Belly,” “Stay”) by revealing all the test-runs, and prevents Star from reaching the potential to which it clearly alludes.
Donelly’s evident goal of normalizing relations with the rock-pop mainstream take real root on King, a much-improved followup smartly produced by English rock master Glyn Johns (Who, Eagles, Faces, Eric Clapton). As a Grammy-nominated four-piece (bassist Gail Greenwood joined after the first album) with a lot to live up to, Belly hits the spot. The group asserts itself in a steady, thrilling electric pop attack that offsets the residual aridness and challenges Donelly to hold her own — which she ably does in a deeper, stronger voice. Co-writing the better half of the album’s songs with Greenwood or Tom Gorman, Donelly sifts out the enigmatism for easier lyrical access, and lashes the results to immediately appealing structures in the majestic “Silverfish,” the giddy “Red,” the Cranberries-like “King” and the star-harshing “Super-Connected.” This is where Belly belongs.
After Belly ended in 1995, Donelly began a solo career.