After co-founding the inspirational indie band Throwing Muses with her stepsister Kristin Hersh, then spending a brief period in the Breeders, and forming the beloved band Belly, singer/songwriter and guitarist Tanya Donelly said fuck it and officially went solo on August 9, 1997 with her dynamic debut ‘Lovesongs for Underdogs.’
I was working at a mom and pop record store and Sire/Warner Bros. Records sent us multiple promo copies of the album a couple weeks prior to ‘Lovesongs for Underdogs’ release. Knowing my love for Throwing Muses and Belly, my boss gave me one of the extra copies to take home as long as I didn’t share it with others. I was so excited because this was the first promo album he ever gave me (he was stingy) and more importantly, it was Tanya Donelly.
I rushed home after work and popped the CD in my portable CD player, pressed play and per my usual routine, laid on the bed and read the liner notes. Stamped in gold across the white cover photo with a blurry Tanya in black pants and a green top was the warning “For Promotional Use Only — Not For Resale.” Yeah, whatever, like I’d ever sell this CD. I still have it to this day.
As the CD played, occasionally skipping due to my lackluster CD player, it was evident Donelly wasn’t duplicating her indie appeal of Throwing Muses or her side work in the Breeders or the alternative punch of Belly. ‘Lovesongs for Underdogs’ was a new venture in to pretty pop songs.
A few weeks prior to the release of ‘Lovesongs for Underdogs,’ Donelly and her label released the album’s first single, which happen to be the lead off track “Pretty Deep.” The emotive song was blissful with arpeggio guitar picking which burst in to power-chord verses. Accompanied by a colorful video in which Tanya was decked out in body art and other various costumes, the video was in heavy rotation on the music channels lifting the first single to No. 55 on the charts.
Four months after the first single was released, the second single appeared. “The Bright Light,” which was also the second song on the album, was a bit heavier with its guitar playing, rolling bass lines and hard-hitting drums. Again, Donelly produced a video for the single and this time it was much more elaborate with Donelly in a flowered dress all made up riding a broom to make it look like she was floating in front of a movie house circa 1950s. As Donelly played up to the camera she looked to be having a good time and it led to the video being put in rotation on the video channels and pushing “The Bright Light” to No. 58 on the singles chart.
The rest of ‘Lovesongs for Underdogs’ plays out beautifully with the bright ballad “Mysteries of the Unexplained;” the ballsy “Lantern,” which would have made a perfect third single; and the haunting acoustic collaboration “Acrobat” between Donelly and Dean Fisher. The back half of the album is thrust upon you with the groove and flirtatious jam “Breathe Around You,” and doesn’t let up with the speedy
“Bum” and the quirky “Goat Girl.” Clocking in at over five minutes, “Manna” is more than just a song. It is a true composition. Although it’s mainly Donelly and an acoustic guitar, there are so many small elements here to digest and is a precursor to Donelly’s future releases. The album ends with the love song “Swoon” and as a listener, you leave the record filled with joy and hope.
Tanya Donelly is arguably one of the most talented and sorely underrated musicians of the 1990s. But she will be the first to tell you it isn’t all about her. It’s about everyone involved and she is aided by some of the best on ‘Lovesongs for Underdogs’ including Dean Fisher (acoustic guitar, bass, percussion, accordion, keyboards), Wally Gagel (bass, percussion, keyboards, drum machine), Rich Gilbert (guitar, accordion, bass, keyboards, saw), Stacy Jones, David Narcizo, David Lovering (drums), Jonathan Williams (electric guitar), and Hilken Mancini and Chris Toppin (background vocals).
Looking back on Tanya Donelly’s ‘Lovesongs for Underdogs’ 20 years after its release, I still get that excited feeling when I hear the first guitar chords play and Donelly’s soaring vocals, just like I did when I took home the promo copy. The album still holds a special place in the heart of this underdog.