I was drunk the first time I heard Belly’s King. “You want to know why I can’t sleep/Unless I got a bellyful of wine,” Tanya Donelly sang on her song “Untitled & Unsung.” “I’m drunk and the world is wild,” she explained as the track slowly faded away. At the peak of the alt-rock boom, the little band (headed by former Throwing Muses and Breeders member Donelly) wormed its way into public consciousness with the hit “Feed the Tree,” a track from their gold-selling debut Star. Pressured by their record company to produce more chart hits, the band flawlessly transformed their cryptic, disjointed sound into the fine-tuned pop of 1995’s King. They landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, but the album fizzled, effectively derailing the band’s career. (Donelly has gone on to release two solo albums, including last year’s Beautysleep.)
With drummer Christopher Gorman’s wicked, lightning-quick drum fills (“Lil’ Ennio” might be the tightest pop/rock track ever), brother Thomas Gorman’s crunchy guitars, and Donelly’s left-of-center lyrics and distinctive voice, the album should have been a huge success. With the help of classic rock producer Glyn Johns, tracks like “Seal My Fate” and “Red” proved Belly could cram three-and-a-half minutes with as many sugary melodies as possible, but without selling out. The lead single, “Now They’ll Sleep,” was a quirky number reminiscent of The Doors, while the gothic “Silverfish” features a classic rock-style guitar snaking beneath Donelly and bassist Gail Greenwood’s honey-glazed harmonies: “I don’t want to hear about your poorly timed rock career.”
Often obscure but never disposable, Donelly’s prickly situations and infectious pop hooks read like poetry: “Are there heartstrings connected/To the wings you’ve got slapped on your back?” she begs on the high-energy “Super-Connected.” “The Bees,” a lovely ballad about dying love, finds the singer a bit self-deprecated (“So come at me with mouth open wide/And I, like a jerk, I crawl inside”), while on the album’s haunting final track, “Judas My Heart” (in which Judas is a verb and the moon hangs low so that deception can be fully and painfully witnessed), Donelly is the bearer of an impossibly heavy torch. Compromise may have shrunk the band’s fanbase at the time, but it left behind a thought-provoking, near-perfect pop album.