After Throwing Muses’ critically acclaimed 1991 album, ‘The Real Ramona,’ co-founder Tanya Donelly left the band to form Belly (Donelly reportedly named the band “Belly” because she thought the word was “both pretty and ugly”). With Donelly on lead vocals and guitar, the Rhode Island native enlisted high school friends the Gorman brothers — Tom on guitar, Chris on drums, and Fred Abong on bass.
Not long after her departure from the Muses, Donelly and Belly released their debut album, ‘Star,’ which was released on January 25, 1993. After the album was released, Abong left the band and was replaced by another Rhode Islander Gail Greenwood.
Belly’s sound was a bit more commercially available than Donelly’s work in Muses and fit right in to college radio boom of the 1990s. The first single “Gepetto” would reach number eight on the U.S. Alternative charts while the next single, “Feed the Tree” would find the top of the charts thanks in part to the video being featured as part of MTV’s “Buzz Bin” and “Alternative Nation” video shows for the majority of 1993. Oh my, those were good times. The third single “Moon” missed the charts, but the fourth and final single “Slow Dog” hit at number 18. ‘Star’ made a splash overseas making it to number two on UK Albums Chart and in their home country, ‘Star’ went gold and earned a pair of Grammy nominations — Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Performance.
All impressive statistics aside, ‘Star’ is a masterpiece of the 1990s. All the songs were written by Donelly, except for “White Belly,” which was co-written with Fred Abong. With her sweet soaring vocal delivery, Donelly’s voice is the hallmark to every Belly song. Her down to earth personality bleeds over into the dream pop sound of the band. However, as a whole, Belly’s sound is filled with much more than one sub-genre of music. The songs are beautifully layered with pop hooks and the soaring harmonies are to die for. But don’t ever call Belly a “cute-as-a-button band,” I am looking at you Chicago Tribune. Dig deep into the lyrical content of ‘Star’ and you will find a juxtaposition of their sound. Donelly’s lyrics touch on much darker issues such as death and unfaithfulness.
Personally, Belly’s ‘Star’ (and their follow up ‘King’) hold a special place in my swollen heart for 90s music. When I listen to music it is in patterns. I listen to the music first, then on the second or third listen, I focus on the lyrics; then after an umpteenth listen, I focus on the small details which push a great album into legendary status. After all, it’s the small details which are the best. Here are 10 little details while I love about Belly’s ‘Star.’
10. Cover – I am not sure if you’d consider the cover of ‘Star’ a ’90s-style cover (what does that mean anyway?), but it is eye catching with its bold bright green and blue colors, the Belly logo and the twirling ballerinas.
9. No Filler – Start to finish there is no filler on ‘Star.’ Even the three vignettes — “Someone to Die For” (2:04); “Witch” (1:35); “Star” (1:27) — fit perfectly into the sequencing of the album.
8. “Someone to Die For” –The arpeggio guitar picking is angelic while the lyrics are haunting.
7. “Angel” – I love the idea that God sent her three angels, but she’d rather have the moon and a man.
6. “Stay” – Tanya’s voice pulls at your emotions in this ballad. The guitar reminds of an old Buddy Holly riff. And for some reason the song makes me think of a high school dance where’d I’d ask the girl to slow dance and she’d say no.
5. “Slow Dog” – Honestly, the first time I heard this song it wasn’t one of my favorites. But good gracious, the guitar melody in this song is a thing of beauty and the guitar effects around the 40-second mark are a clever addition. I feel sorry for the dog.
4. “Low Red Moon” – This is such a dark and brooding song, so completely underrated. I also love Tanya’s fixation with the moon. The low-end guitar tone at the beginning, then breaking into a foot stomping rhythm makes me happy.
3. “Gepetto” – I love everything about this song. The guitar intro, and the poppy melodies mixed with lyrics about losing your soul and doll decapitation.
2. “Feed the Tree” – “So take your hat off boy when you’re talking to me” is one of the best lines of the entire album. It makes me think of some guy being disrespectful to a woman by leaving his hat on like in the 1930s when everyone wore hats. Plus, the ebb and flow of the music is mesmerizing.
1. “Dusted” – My all-time favorite Belly song, period.
If you take anything away from Belly’s debut album it is that Donelly shows on ‘Star’ that she became a poetic songwriter and has only gotten better over time. She is also an innovative guitarist and composer. Twenty-four years after its release ‘Star’ remains one of the quintessential albums of my lifetime.