REVIEW: Belly, King (Sire/Reprise)
- Reto Koradi
"Take your hat off boy when you're talking to me, and be there when I feed the tree." This song, together with a few other singles like "Gepetto" and "Slow Dog" catapulted Belly's debut album Star to the #1 spot of the alternative charts in '93 and was one of the most remarkable albums in the flood of alternative female pop. Two years later, after touring extensively, Belly is back with their second album. We've seen often enough that this is more difficult than a promising debut album. Repeating the same thing is the no-risk option, but it won't work as well as the first time. And, it's still too early to surprise the newly acquired fans with a drastic style change. So will Belly proceed to stardom, or will they belly-flop and be forgotten?
The lineup has changed slightly since Star. Gail Greenwood has replaced Fred Abong on bass. The Gorman brothers, Tom on guitar and piano, Chris on drums and percussion, are still on board. And the key member, of course, is still Tanya Donelly on vocals and guitar. She also wrote all the lyrics and the major part of the songs, 6 of them are co-written by Tom Gorman or Gail Greenwood. While Belly are a rather new band, Donelly has been around the alternative music scene for a decade, being a driving force in the Throwing Muses together with her stepsister Kristin Hersh, and founding the Breeders together with former Pixies member Kim Deal.
King was produced by Glyn Johns, a man who has worked with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin. But, despite this background, he doesn't dominate the band. The production is clean yet still lively and fresh.
The opening track of the album, "Puberty", indicates already in which direction they're going. While Star was special in some ways, it still relied on the distorted guitars that seem to be mandatory for most alternative bands, even though they have lost their novelty effect long ago. Here the guitars sound more laid-back with the drums give the song a driving rhythm. And while Donelly's voice often sounded rather thin on Star, it has gotten fuller without losing its characteristic quality.
"Seal My Fate" also reveals new qualities, with the sound gaining greater variance. The song starts slow, with Donelly's sweet voice mainly accompanied by percussions. The pace gets faster and the tension builds up for a catchy chorus.
This change of rhythm within one song is even more pronounced in "Red", maybe the musically most interesting track of the album. Slow and melodic parts alternate with a punk-like chorus dominated by the drums. This kind of variation of style within one track has resulted in outstanding songs before, e. g. in PIL's legendary "Rise".
The first single "Now They'll Sleep" is not a standout track, but is representative of more than half of the songs. It starts with an intro with heavy, but slow, almost blues-like guitar chords, and evolves into a rather straight rock song with a catchy melody. The title track is another example, with a more punky rhythm.
The quiet songs that were highlights on Star ("Untogether"), but somewhat underrepresented, are also here, and really sparkle this time. "Silverfish" is an immediate favorite with an irresistible melody - it is one of those songs where you're never sure whether you heard them before, or whether they were just waiting to finally be written. This should be released as a single and certainly has the potential to open them up for a much larger audience. "The Bees" is another very catchy song.
All in all, King is an impressive effort. The music is great, and Donelly's voice is more intriguing than ever. Sweet and lovely, but always sounding somewhat twisted, which saves even the slow, melodic ballads from getting cheesy. Belly left some of the child-like innocence of Star on their way, but their step forward revealed new, interesting territory. We're taking our hats off, Tanya!
The album release will be followed by a world tour that will take Belly through North America, Europe, Japan and Australia.