A few days back I spoke about Nino Rota’s Casanova soundtrack playing in ‘that space between the lulling and the nightmarish’ and being ‘playful, sinister, vaguely surreal’. I’ve been searching my iTunes library, trying to find more music that had a similar vibe, but my collection of orchestral/movie music only runs to a couple of dozen records and none of them really had that same feel. But I did remember a record that sparked in me the same kind of associations. It was actually a rock album, Star by Belly.
There’s a moment on Star, more than any other, that most powerfully creates that feeling of the childhood world being menaced by something adult and not fully understood.
Every Word, the fourth song on the record, starts unexceptionally enough, although it sticks with its basic E major to Eb major chord progression long enough for it to set up a palpable tension. But the strangeness really begins after the song’s chorus section (for want of a better term), when the whole things stops and, after the chord is allowed to ring out long enough to make you think the song might be over, it starts again at a crawl. The rest of the song is then taken at a really slow tempo. The sort that you don’t encounter in rock music very often. It’s amazing how you can make something familiar strange by the simple act of dragging it out, slowing it right down.
Over this, a high-pitched melody plays, on an electric guitar doubled by something. A theremin? Tanya Donelly’s voice, possibly, altered, manipulated or repitched? It’s hard to tell, which is the point. Familiar chord changes and rhythms made strange by playing them too slowly. Familiar sounds made strange by combining them with others, by filtering and processing them. Making the familiar strange is what this album does.
Every Word is only the most obvious moment of weirdness on the record. But this is an album that deals over and again with childhood exposure to the adult world, in which everything is weird because of its newness. Or rather, an adult imagining herself as a child, for Donelly was in her mid-twenties and had been a professional musician for seven or eight years at this point. For sceptics of the band, and there were a few, there was something off-putting about the distance between the physical reality of Donelly the grown woman and her child (childish? Childlike?) narrators, a distance made greater by the soft, high-pitched voice she sang the songs in. That vocal tone, which she hadn’t used on previous Throwing Muses or Breeders records and wouldn’t use for Belly’s second album King, was essentially an exaggeration of her normal singing voice. Using her head voice rather than projecting from the diaphragm, accentuating her vocals’ natural airiness and lightness, she made herself sound younger, which perfectly suited the Brothers Grimm world of the album.
But working with these kinds of conceits and affectations without explaining them can lead to misinterpretation, and Donelly came in for some unwarranted criticism from some within the riot grrrl scene for working with metaphor and symbols and allegory (and so obscuring her message), for some of her mannerisms and even for her stage clothes, and above all for failing to make herself and her songs immediately comprehensible.
Whether as a direct result of this flak or not, when Belly next made an album, the tinny, something-bad-going-down-in-Toytown sound of Star had given way to a muscular, live-off-the-floor directness. King was recorded at Compass Point in the Bahamas by Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who) and featured minimal overdubs, hard panning, even live vocals. There aren’t many bands with such a small body of work who made two albums so different from each other. The songs were clearly the work of the same writer, but it was as if 10 years had passed between them rather than just two.
I like both albums equally, but Star I tend to listen to less. It has such a particular sound and mood that it doesn’t fit every occasion. When you’re in the mood for it though, it’s just the thing. There is nothing else like it.
Belly on the beach, 1995. ©Stephen Dirado