Rumbling Belly They May Be The Perky ‘Cute New Band,’ But It’s Not As If Members Of Belly Have Had Success Handed To Them
The Disney version of the Belly story would go something like this: A few friends get together and say, “Hey, kids - let’s start a band!” So they do, and blessed with a winning combination of dimples and perky guitar riffs, they snag two Grammy nominations with their debut album, “Star.”
In most cases, any resemblance between Hollywood and real life is purely fictitious but this scenario captures an annoying misconception that trails the band like a broken tour-bus tailpipe. Belly can’t seem to shake the whole “cute new band” thing, the belief that lead singer Tanya Donelly and bandmates woke up one morning, shredded the knees in their jeans, and - voila! - they were pop stars.
What many people forget, or simply don’t know, is that Donelly spent a dozen years in two other acclaimed bands - Throwing Muses and the Breeders - before forming Belly. Bassist Gail Greenwood, who replaced Fred Abong after “Star” was recorded, hails from the Newport, R.I., punk-pop Dames, and plays as if she could handle both Lita Ford and Chrissie Hynde in a back-alley tussle. The brothers Gorman, Tom and Chris, have played in a succession of Rhode Island hardcore punk bands.
It’s certain Newport, R.I., will never be anointed a rock ‘n’ roll mecca, but no one in Belly fell off a turnip truck and landed in heavy rotation on MTV.
Maybe that image will shrivel and die now that Belly has a strong follow-up disc, “King,” which has spawned two college-radio singles, “Red” and “Super-Connected.” Donelly hopes so. She believes “King” could also help shake the feeling among some rock purists that the band’s unabashedly catchy pop is both precious and overly frothy.
Maybe “King” will do all this. Perhaps Belly’s current tour will help persuade the naysayers.
Maybe. But forgive Donelly for not thinking too much about it. Releasing a second album carries a far weightier set of concerns.
“There’s more pressure over what this album should do,” Donelly said softly over the telephone, resting at home after a nasty bout of mouth and throat ailments. “The first one, people expected to do minimally, and when it sold well that shifted all the pressure on the next album. Now there are no pleasant surprises left. There are some expectations this time around.”
The messy issue of sales aside, band members placed silent, self-imposed goals on themselves. Part of that was evident in the collaborative nature of “King.” Greenwood contributed two strong songs, “Super-Connected” and “Puberty.” Tom Gorman added several more and Chris Gorman directed the video for “Super-Connected.”
“Every human being alive wants their life to progress from one step to the next,” Donelly said. “We’ve made a musical progression this time. Music always takes care of itself.”
On “Star,” Donelly wrote nearly all the music so skeletal lyrics were already in mind when she sat down with bandmates. But on “King,” she explained, “The words came last mostly because Tom and Gail both contributed music. I really enjoyed it this way, writing over somebody else’s music. Sometimes their songs suggest words that I wouldn’t ordinarily have written on my own. It opens another part of my brain.”
Donelly’s own songs are likely to be tidy bundles of guitar-driven pop, strong on hooks and harmonies. It’s been that way since the beginning, since her days with Throwing Muses.
She and Kristin Hersh - her best pal and stepsister - formed Throwing Muses in 1981 as teenagers in Newport. They were regulars on the club circuit, a sweet-and-sharp foursome that prompted chronic overuse of the adjective “quirky.”
Hersh drew most of the attention with her onstage intensity and vocal dissonance, a singing style described as someone trying to disquiet the world; Donelly stayed in the background, added harmonies and contributed an occasional song.
In 1990, Donelly worked on a side project, the Breeders, with Kim Deal, who was tiring of her secondary role in the Pixies. Throwing Muses rumbled on through one more excellent album, “The Real Ramona,” but the whole package unraveled in 1991. “Creative differences” is too soft a term to describe the split, which neither will discuss in depth.
Donelly formed Belly later in ‘91. Hersh performed and recorded solo and kept Throwing Muses alive but quiet for several years. The Muses re-emerged late in 1994 as an excellent trio. (Fans still define themselves as “Belly” people or “Muses” people.)
Belly began 1995 with a six-week swing through Europe that surprised Donelly. “People there were very familiar with the new album. A lot of the kids were singing along with the new songs.”
The “King” sessions were a breeze. There were no visitations from record-label folks eager to check the band’s progress (recording in the Bahamas helped). “We weren’t thinking about anybody else for this album,” Donelly laughed.
Even so, those pressures loom unsaid and unseen. “Now we’re at the point where we have to think of an album as product, which is a difficult thing. It’s something that we pay attention to because it’s our future.”