Tag Archives: Boston

King by Belly

Belly have reformed. Let’s start there.

I didn’t expect that to happen. I got the impression from Tanya Donelly’s somewhat sporadic musical activity in the last ten years that she was done with the music industry, and that she’d soon fade from public view altogether, as implied by the title of the EP series she’s been working on for the last few years, Swan Song. I was totally cool with that. There’s something dignified and graceful in getting out and choosing to stay out.

But there are plenty of precedents for reunited bands doing great work in their second phase: Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr, The Go-Betweens, Alice in Chains, even, with a different lead singer. So if Belly are going to come back and do it for real – a new album as well as a tour – sign me up. I’ve got nothing but respect for them – I hope they have a blast and make some decent dough doing it.

It’s somewhat over 21 years since the band’s second, and so far, final album came out. King is one of those records that has stuck with me a long time. I first heard it in 1998, after the band had already broken up, and it stayed on heavy rotation on my stereo for a couple of years. Nowadays, as with most of the records that if pushed I’d pick as my favourites, I don’t really listen to it. But the announcement of a new tour (tickets on sale tomorrow – if I don’t get any, you’ll probably hear my anguished cries) made it inevitable that it would soundtrack my journey to and from work today.

I’ve written about the record very briefly before but let me recap, even more briefly. King was recorded by engineer/producer Glyn Johns at Compass Point studios in Nassau. Johns had worked on Let it Be, Let it Bleed, Stage Fright, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin (just to take the five biggest titles from his discography). Working with a guy like that was an extremely unusual move for an alternative rock band in 1995, when every record label just wanted Andy Wallace or, if he wasn’t available, one of those Lord Alge brothers with that new-fangled drum sound of theirs. Johns was as old school as it got, and his work on King made it stand out a mile.

Johns encouraged the band to record the album live: two guitars, bass and drums, all together, all bleeding into each other. Even the vocals. “Any band that can play a gig can play live in a studio,” he’s said. “There was no backup plan.”

This was not standard industry practice in 1995, and in 2016 is practically unheard of. When you record this way, every microphone contains ambient sound as well as the direct sound of whatever instrument the microphone is primarily picking up. Bass goes into the guitar mics. Drums go into the bass amp mic. Everything goes into everything else. Fine, if the band can play well. But because nothing can be edited independent of any other sound source, it’s a method of recording that forces you either to not make mistakes, or to make them and live with them.

King is full of mistakes. It’s a document of band, and a band that were, for all their many virtues, not Steely Dan. Donelly’s voice cracks. Chris Gorman’s drums threaten to fall apart on Seal My Fate and Silverfish. Gail Greenwood hardly gets on a one in 45 minutes. Real-time fader and pan-pot moves are plainly audible.

It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it mixed any other way.

This sound is perfect for the set of songs Donelly had written (largely in collaboration with Tom Gorman). Less surreal and sinister than the songs on Star, King tracks like Judas My Heart and The Bees still demonstrate that quality of prime-era Donelly: a gorgeous, indelible melody coupled with a lyric that seeks to hide its vulnerability behind images and symbols, the urge to be plainspoken and honest fighting with the urge to protect oneself. Thus The Bees can contain lyrics as imagistic as:

Now the bees behind my eyes sing beware

and as plain-spoken as:

I steal a piece of your diary
I don’t think that looks like me
Am I so cold now that I’m older?
I tell you stories
That doesn’t mean you know me

At this point, the record’s slower, more interior-looking songs – The Bees, Seal My Fate and Silverfish – are my favourites, but if sparkly, guitar-heavy pop is more your thing, King has plenty of that, too. Red, Super-Connected and Now They’ll Sleep are all neglected White Album-ish classics, and the title track is a grindy, initially unpromising grower that halfway through suddenly becomes something else entirely.

Star is the record that Belly will be remembered for, and it’s obvious why. Its best songs are extremely portable. Taken out of their context and played on the radio or placed on a iTunes playlist, Gepetto and Feed the Tree sound just wonderful. Star has some great second-tier material, too. Dusted. Slow Dog. Sad Dress. White Belly. I love them all. But King? King is timeless. King is its own thing. Nothing was like it then, nothing is like it now.

belly stephen dirado

Belly on the beach in Nassau during the recording of King, 1995)

Moon Over Boston – Tanya Donelly

Tanya Donelly is one of my favourite musicians. The step-sister of Kristin Hersh – leader of Boston-area art-punk band Throwing Muses since the mid-1980s – Donelly was the group’s lead guitarist, harmony singer and occasional singer-songwriter for their first four albums, between 1983 when they formed and 1991 when she left after The Real Ramona (which is one of the Muses’ very best records, right up there with the debut). Donelly was also a founding member of the Breeders, and Pod bears heavy traces of her involvement; the group were never quite as interesting to me after she stepped aside to focus on her post-Muses band, Belly.

Unlike Throwing Muses, who continued their honourable labours without ever catching a break, Belly were immediately successful: top-five album chart success in both the US and the UK, top-20 singles, heavy rotation on MTV and radio, and Grammy nominations. Donelly was an inspiration to anyone who’d ever been a second fiddle but harboured ambitions of succeeding on their own terms, and she did it making music that was shiny and inviting, but with a disconcerting aura of strangeness and spookiness, a sound I’ve described elsewhere as like something bad going down in Toytown. Belly were quite a thing.

Alas Belly’s success didn’t last, and the group unravelled after recording a wonderful second album that didn’t strike the same chord with the public that their first had. Donelly took a year or two to come back with her first solo record, Lovesongs for Underdogs, and it was a slightly odd mix, blending the shiniest hooks of her career (Pretty Deep is an alterna-world smash) with some of the disquieting obliqueness that had marked Belly out as something special on tracks such as Swoon, as well as occasional straitforward ballads like Manna, which Donelly had never really engaged in before. The production, though, was pure AAA, which didn’t suit the more idiosyncratic material, but didn’t quite elevate the poppier songs either.

While the Lovesongs era didn’t succeed in making Donelly a solo star the way it seemed designed to, it did produce an enduring favourite of mine. Moon Over Boston was the B-side to the album’s second single, The Bright Light. To my knowledge, it’s the only proper recording of the song, which was written by Gary “Skeggie” Kendall, a guitarist, promoter and Boston scenester from the 1980s and ’90s, formerly of the bands Tackle Box and the Toughskin. Probably cut live with the full band, like a proper jazz side, it’s a spot-on recreation – produced by Kendall and long-time Boston hero Gary Smith – of a certain type of small-band jazz record, with exactly the right kind of warm saxophone sound and all the proper passing chords; it’s even got the old-school, free-time intro. It’s a beautiful record, and Donelly’s voice is surprisingly adept at this sort of tune, sounded not unlike Blossom Dearie. I’m convinced it could become a standard if someone were to make a romantic comedy called Moon Over Boston and feature this as the title track. Maybe I should get to work on a screenplay.

Donelly stepped away from music in the mid-noughties, and trained as a post-partum doula. However over the last year or so, she’s recently put out a sequence of EPs, the Swan Song series, a title which she says doesn’t indicate imminent retirement. Hersh, meanwhile, powers on. The most driven musician I can think of (see here for some of her backstory), Hersh will make music as long as she’s got two working hands and a voice. Next month, I’m going to get to see Throwing Muses play in London with Donelly guesting. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to that one.

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