“Alternative music” is not yet just the genre where we stick anything semi-popular that isn’t R&B or hip-hop. We still have space for bands that have graduated from college radio — R.E.M. (and a few other bands from my hometown of Athens), Camper Van Beethoven, The Smiths, XTC, Midnight Oil, The Cure, etc.
And it’s not all male. Kim Deal holds down the bass end for The Pixies and is singing for her side project, The Breeders. Natalie Merchant’s voice drifts from dorm-room speakers. Indigo Girls start out as two women with guitars and expand their sound to epics propelled by some of the best bassists and drummers in the business.
In the midst of this creative storm strides the unlikely figure of Tanya Donelly. She’s only 27 but is already a music-business veteran, having played with stepsister Kristin Hersh in Throwing Muses since her teen years and working with Deal in The Breeders. She’s not a commanding presence like Deal or a whirlwind of hallucinatory images like Hersh or Tori Amos, but she’s ready to step out and lead a band. That band, Belly, gets airplay not just on the nearly mainstream alternative stations like the mighty WHFS but also on MTV.
I could even interact with the band using some of the first online tools to hit the public. Bassist Gail Greenwood knew someone on the Prodigy message boards, so she drops in on occasion and teases me about pondering a switch from electric to acoustic guitar. Donelly drops by to do the equivalent of a Reddit AMA, and I print out her response to my question. (Yes, a Prodigy message board answer, printed on a dot-matrix printer. This was only 25 years ago?)
Meanwhile, the world is looking better. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and the Soviet republics are off to promising starts as independent countries. Donald Trump is an oft-ridiculed businessman with a penchant for misguided ego trips. George W. Bush is staying out of trouble as a baseball owner.
Tempting to go back, isn’t it?
Well, maybe not. We forget that the USA of the 1990s wasn’t that great a place if you were gay or a little different. We weren’t making quite as big as mess of the Middle East and Africa as we are today, but we were still wrapped up in the Balkans and a few other places we didn’t talk about. We weren’t making much progress dealing with AIDS, let alone deadly drugs. We didn’t have the technology, mostly taken for granted today, that connects the world and saves lives.
Also, I had not yet met my wife, so I’m not going back. I cherish my time where college rock was a lifeline for lonely geeky kids sitting with their Peavey amps and wondering when women would start paying attention to us and not the self-assured frat guys on campus, but I love my family life today. The music is by far the best part of that period in my life — I worked backwards from Belly and wore out a cassette and then a CD of Throwing Muses’ The Real Ramona, where Hersh distilled her off-the-wall sensibilities for the unforgettable rhythm-and-hooks classic Counting Backwards and Donelly strode into the spotlight with the power pop gem Not Too Soon.
Besides, the best parts of the 1990s have a tendency of sticking around or coming back. And Belly is back in a big way.
No, they probably won’t be on the cover of Rolling Stone again, hyping a second album that had good songs but less enthralling mystery than their ethereal debut. Tanya Donelly will never be Liz Phair, or vice versa. That’s fine. We can all make room on our shelves or our iPods for both.
Belly broke up after that second album, a big blow for those of us who said, “No, I can’t make it to your nearby show on this tour, but I’ll catch the next one.” Greenwood joined L7 for a couple of years and more recently kicked cancer’s ass, giving thanks to Obamacare along the way. (She’s also a bit of a fitness nut, as you can see in the Gepetto video below.) Guitarist Tom Gorman and drummer Chris Gorman more or less dropped out of the business, though it seems everyone involved in the Muses/Belly orbit keeps some sort of creative career. (Fred Abong, briefly the bassist in Throwing Muses and then in Belly, is now a philosophy Ph.D.) Donelly kept one foot in with a sporadic solo career (Pretty Deep is a roaring song that continues the Muses/Breeders/Belly tradition of having more hooks in one song than many artists manage in a lifetime, and I often find myself singing the New England opening line: “It’s JUNE, and I’m still wearing my boots.”) and worked as a post-partum doula.
Donelly is a mom herself, having a couple of daughters with husband Dean Fisher, who has played bass with Juliana Hatfield. And that surely is an influence in Belly’s new single.
Which is every bit as marvelous as we could possibly hope for from a band that hadn’t recorded in 23 years.
With Greenwood’s groovy bass line, it sounds a bit more like a reunited Stone Roses at first. But Gorman (Tom) brings in his unique guitar style, playing both some otherworldly tones and the rootsy low-frequency riffs you’d expect from a man with an old-school Gretsch. Donelly has described the writing process as truly collaborative, building on Greenwood’s bass with the Gorman brothers taking things in new directions.
And there’s no mistaking Donelly’s voice. She’s 50 now, and she sounds more mature than she did at age 30 or 20 or whenever you first heard her, but it’s still her.
So, because this series of Popdose posts is intended to decipher lyrics, what’s she singing about?
Lyrically, this is a bit like an XTC track after Andy Partridge became a father. Perhaps there’s some interpretation in which the “Shiny One” of the lyrics is not a child, but so far, this track hasn’t popped up at SongMeanings or Songfacts, where there’s always some dude who claims every song is about either drugs or sex. The lyrics are posted at Genius, where the one “fact” posted is that this song went straight to No. 1, knocking Drake out of the top spot. (That would be fantastic. Maybe it could still happen?)
Shiny One certainly has some vague spiritual overtones as well. “Bless me, my son” opens each verse and the chorus, and Donelly has references to a “fallen angel,” “better angel” and “one who will not be named.” The tone is reinforced with Donelly’s skyward gaze in Chris Gorman’s clever video for the song, which includes some subtle callbacks to the Feed the Tree video — note the woods and Gorman’s stripped-down drum kit.
A few lyrics apparently have not yet been transcribed. Maybe we’re all the way back in the 80s, listening to R.E.M. albums and trying to figure out what the hell Michael Stipe is singing.
Yet we can certainly take a general impression that Donelly is offering advice and encouragement to the next generation. “Don’t forget who you come from, son,” but fly higher and farther than your imperfect but proud parents. It’s a good message for those of us trying to make sure our kids have more modern views of gender and sexuality than we did. And also, son, don’t follow other cars too closely on the Beltway, because they might slam on their brakes to avoid rubberneckers ahead, and you might have to pay through the nose for a fine and some body work on your car. (Yeah, I had a rough weekend.)
So, no, it’s not 1993 any more. Belly has a mom and a cancer survivor teaming up to give us a tune that’s groovy and psychedelic but with modern studio perfection and a mother’s wisdom. They’re funding things through PledgeMusic, where the discussion reassured me that Greenwood is doing well after chemotherapy and reassured Greenwood that I still have my old electric guitar. (Actually, I spend far more time playing drums now.)
But a lot of our favorite 90s bands are roaring back, sounding familiar and yet new. The Breeders have come back with the Last Splash lineup (just after Donelly left). Some enterprising tour manager is surely trying to get Belly and the partially reunited Echobelly, whose new track is also far better than the world deserves today, on the same stage.
It’s 2018. That’s frightening in ways we couldn’t have imagined in 1993. But at least we’re in good company.