Put On Your Black Dress: Belly’s Star Turns 30

Revisiting the band’s classic 1993 debut LP

Belly 1993 (Image: Sire/Reprise)

Sometimes, the immutable truth is that if you want a band you’re in to perform your songs, it needs to be your band.

An example of that truth — Belly’s Star –was released 30 years ago today. But before we talk abut the album itself, we need to talk about how it came to be.

The Pixies were always going to be Frank Blank’s band. Throwing Muses were always going to be Kristin Hersh’s. Thus, the Breeders came along. Outside of the cover of the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, all of the songs on their debut Pod had been written all of in part by ex-Pixie Kim Deal.

Guitarist Tanya Donelly, who’d come from Throwing Muses, had co-written “Only in 3’s”, but was eager for more.

She worked on a whole batch of songs. To this day, the label on those versions reads “Breeders demos.”

This was at a point where the lines between current and former bands weren’t clearly demarcated yet. Donelly had songs that she’d written for The Real Ramona that didn’t appear on it. As the Breeders started, Deal was still a Pixie.

The plan was for Pod’s follow-up to be centered around Donelly’s songs, but Deal was committed to being in the Pixies a little bit longer for their opening slots on U2’s Zoo TV tour.

Donelly was eager to record. So rather than wait, she left the Breeders to form her own band.

The mutual parting of ways happened without much rancor. As it turned out, Deal would hit a fertile writing patch of her own. That timed perfectly with the Pixies’ breakup. The result would be the band’s best and most successful album– Last Splash — which would be released in August, 1993.

Donelly’s outlet would be in a band formed with a trio of musicians she knew going back to high school in Rhode Island — brothers Tom and Chris Gorman on guitar and drums, respectively, and bassist Fred Abong.

Belly Slow Dust EP, 4AD 1992

Formed in 1991, Belly released the three-song Slow Dust EP the following year.

Star was next. Here was Donelly, no longer in a support role to talented writers like Hersh and Deal. This was a chance to fully showcase her emerging talents as a creator.

Donelly’s best Muses contributions, “Honeychain” and “Not to Soon” had been on her last album as a member — 1991’s The Real Ramona.

Her songs had served as a counter to Hersh’s more intense style. Had future Breeders albums been a more equal mix of Deal and Donelly, the latter could have been the more straightforward foil to the former’s more slightly askew approach to catchiness.

Not that Donelly was following straight lines herself. One of the things striking about Star decades later is how many bases it touches, keeping it fresh during its 15-song, 50-minute length.

It’s no surprise that the through line from the Real Ramona to Star is so clear. Donelly’s two contributions to that album would have fit perfectly on Star had the others she’d written made the cut “Honeychain” burrows under the skin. “Not Too Soon” is catchier and weirder.

“Full Moon, Empty Heart,” “Slow Dog,” and “Gepetto” all wound up on Star instead, giving Donelly a head start on quality material.

Starting with gently strummed chords, “Full Moon, Empty Heart” hints at what a Donelly-led Last Splash might have been. The tempo picks up as the lyrics delve into lost innocence.

 

VIDEO: Belly “Slow Dog”

“Slow Dog” definitely bears the Muses stamp, with its darker lyrics and tuneful racket.

“That one’s almost an embarrassing story because it was one of my most manipulated lyrics ever,” Donelly told Spectrum in 2013. “Usually they just come and I work with it a little bit to make it more listenable, but that one was a story I read about ancient Chinese culture. It was a piece of fiction about a woman who was an adulteress, and as punishment had a dead dog stuck to her back until it decomposed. That image – I couldn’t shake it. So I started to write it as a poem, and it took on this Southern Gothic character to it, so I framed it there, in the American South.”

The twist she put on it was to have the protagonist be freed, once the dog (a metaphorical one) is gone, she no longer has to deal with the weight on her back.”“It’s not actually about the dog. It’s about the ways that we punish ourselves and each other, and in the end, what a waste,” Donelly told the Guardian in 2016.

The guitars are the first truest hook in “Gepetto”, then the chorus comes along to land a second. Its lyrics harken back to that weird kid you knew (or maybe were), complete with decapitated doll heads that could have been on a kindercore record cover.

 

VIDEO: Belly “Gepetto”

Star’s imagery came about from Donelly’s childhood as a New Englander.

“I’m a huge Yankee…if I’m processing, I do it very subconsciously. I didn’t realize at the time I was doing that sort of work, getting therapy, which is exactly what it was,” Donelly said during press for the album’s 20th anniversary. “I was an extremely self-repressing child. The way I chose to deal with things was to put everything in separate little boxes and save them for later. That’s what Star really is in a lot of ways – me unwrapping each box one by one and clearing out that particular attic space”.

The album’s big hit would be “Feed the Tree”, which indicates that Donelly had the potential the pop songwriter-for-hire path that other alternative musicians took. The pre-chorus (“I know all this and more”) is as catchy as the actual chorus. And the lyrics (“Broke his own heart/Poured it in the ground/Big red tree grew up and out/Throw up its leaves/Spins round and round”) stick in the brain. 

Not only was “Feed the Tree” a well-written, well-produced success, it showed off one of the album’s other weapons — Donelly’s voice.

She could deliver a line full of uncomfortable subtext like she was singing a lullaby. While she didn’t possess a riot grrl scream, she was able to come up with plenty of emotional punch. She could swim in fairytale imagery, but this was no manic pixie dream girl.

 

VIDEO: Belly “Feed The Tree”

That voice is front and center on “Low Red Moon”, arguably Star’s highlight. It’s a study in loud/quiet dynamics with lyrics open to interpretation. The verses are quiet and disquieting in a way that Hersh’s best could be. Then things get louder, the organ hits hard, matching Donelly’s vocal intensity. It’s one of her best songs and, honestly, a better version of some of the musical turf R.E.M. would soon be mining.

The mixing up of styles runs all the way through Star. Opener “Someone to Die For” remains spare throughout, almost folky. 

But then “Angel” follows with a tolling bell, feedback and distortion, a vivid journey where Donelly encounters dreams so bad she throws her pillow away, but eventually finds some solace within the noise.

The album was recorded in Nashville. The surroundings seep into the end of the dysfunctional relationship(s) in “Untogether”, which flirts with country blues.

The breathy atmosphere does the heavy lifting on “Witch”, in which this fairy tale turns happy or dark is left up to one’s interpretation.

“Dusted” is punchier alt-rock, driven by bass. “Every Word” is Donelly putting her own stamp on Deal’s Breeders sound. “Sad Dress” turns up the volume and buzz. “Stay” closes the album on a melodically lilting note, leaving the impression that all that unpacking was indeed worth it.

Star did well for a debut. “I love that record and I loved making it and I loved touring it,” Donelly told Spectrum. “The whole year was a halcyon year for us. We loved each other so much at that point! It was so fun and exciting and scary and nerve-wracking. But I am proud of that one.”

The stage was set for the follow-up. 1995’s King was more polished, louder and hookier. The band got a Rolling Stone cover. Everything seemed to be in place until it wasn’t.

Reaction to the album was bizarrely mixed (although Donelly later said she wasn’t surprised). King never quite took off. Donelly, burned out, broke up the band. 

Belly Star, Sire/Reprise 1993

She went on to a solo career and started a family. Her experiences with pregnancy eventually led her to adding postpartum doula to her list of jobs. She helps new mothers with support and logistics, as preparing for a baby goes only so far once the baby is there.

“I just started to realize that in our part of New England, new families have a hard time accepting help – not even asking for help,” Donelly told the Guardian. “People will turn down help; I’ve literally sat in front of women turning down help from family and then bursting into tears as soon as they get off the phone. There’s this real culture of ‘I got this!’ and they’d rather pay somebody. So I’m there as what, in the past, would have been the village support network. Ideally, I’d prefer the village, but this is the world.”

There was even an unexpected Belly reunion, first for some live shows, then an album. Dove, released in 2018, showed that the chemistry was still there, if not the same youthful energy.

Forming Belly was a pragmatic decision for Donelly and the right one, as it turned out. It kicked off the rest of her career, one where she always had an outlet for her songs.

Star remains an inviting trip to a dream-filled place where intimate and loud, scary and comforting, utterly accessible and weird all coexist in harmony. Another immutable truth is that it’s still a high-water mark in her career.

 

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love -- music . She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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