Out of the buzz bin and onto the cover of Rolling Stone. That was the seemingly lightning-speed trajectory of New England’s Belly, the alt-rock foursome whose Star shot them to stardom in the early 1990s. Unbeknownst to most of the kids listening to the radio in ’93, though, the origins of the band reached further back, with lead singer Tanya Donelly having co-founded both the influential Throwing Muses with her stepsister Kristin Hersh and, later, the Breeders with Pixies member Kim Deal. Credit Donelly’s more conventional, pop-rooted compositions and affable voice for her desire to break from Throwing Muses and the Breeders; with Belly, the singer-songwriter managed to achieve greater, albeit brief, mainstream visibility than either of those two bands had up to that point.
Ironically, one of the genre’s foremost pioneers was ultimately deemed a one-hit wonder: Belly’s first single, “Feed the Tree,” became a pop hit, a light and swirly yet macabre dream-pop counterpoint to the more overtly grungy alt-rock that had overtaken the airwaves. Eager to reprise the success of the song (or, perhaps, just eager to appease their record label), Belly filled their second and final album, 1995’s King, almost entirely with accessible pop fare, but Star, though certainly more musically adventurous, also includes its fair share of radio-friendly material. With its classic guitar arpeggio, tear-jerky violin solo, and tragic, repeated final plea of “It’s not time for me to go,” “Stay” is an old-fashioned love song that’s as conventional as they come, while the minor hit “Gepetto” is one of the album’s slickest tracks: The vocals, acoustic guitars, and percussion are crisp and clear in the foreground of the mix, the “sha la-la” girl-group backing vocals revealing Donelly’s affection for more traditional pop forms.
Donelly’s lyrics aren’t as easy to swallow, let alone decipher. She goes through the motions of mourning as prescribed by societal expectations on “Full Moon, Empty Heart” (“Now fall to the bed/Put your hand in your hair/And now fall to the tile/Stick your finger in your eye/That’s the only way to cry”) and hints at prostitution on “White Belly” (“Made a mistake on a fire escape in San Francisco/Worked my way back in a hallway in L.A.”). The ambiguity doesn’t render her oft-oblique musings any less evocative or moving (as on the ominous, organ-driven “Low Red Moon,” perhaps the most accomplished song here, lyrically speaking), but when she’s less ambiguous it’s even more profound. “Feed the Tree” is a proposal of lifelong commitment wrapped in obscurity, a meditation on eternal life and eternal love, “Untogether” smarts with intelligence and shrewd, tell-it-like-it-is observation (“You can’t save the unsaveably untogether”), and typical relationship troubles are given refreshing perspective on “Every Word”: “Uh-oh, oh, you gave me too much room/So I filled it up with chairs you can’t sit on.”
Many of the songs on Star were originally written for the Breeders’s second album and several tracks were helmed by Pixies producer Gil Norton, so there’s a distinct post-punk quality to Belly’s music—which also includes shades of folk, country, and spaghetti-western influences. Star, however, is more sensual and surreal than anything produced by the band’s immediate progenitors; there’s a distinctly feminine quality to the album, and Donelly’s pixie-ish persona and quirky lyrics seemingly rendered the band less worthy of the critical-darling status many of their (mostly male-fronted) contemporaries earned among the rock press. But Donelly shared with Kurt Cobain a desire to combine pop with punk, which was inspired chiefly by the Pixies, and it’s that marriage of mainstream sensibilities and alt-rock aesthetic that makes Star transcend the grunge-rock label and, a whole 15 years later, continue to shine so brightly.