If no one has bothered to do the math at this point, this should make it pretty obvious that I’m a Nineties kid. In fairness, I was a kid in the Eighties, I was an angst-ridden teenager in the Nineties. And, like the rest of my flannel-wearing, pretentious poetry writing kin, I listened to a lot of grunge, and a lot of indie rock and what was being called “alternative” at the time (I’ll save that rant for another day). And I listened to Belly.
I had no musical sense of what I liked when I was a freshman in high school. The music I liked was either the jazz, show tunes, Motown and British invasion rock of my parents, or whatever I was told to like by the radio. At the end of my freshman year, just at the time I was trying to “find myself,” my friend Kris gave me a mix tape. For those of you unaware of the concept…I’m very sorry, you missed out on something cool. It was essentially a sixty or, if you were lucky, ninety minute curated bunch of music that a friend wanted to have you listen to. Sometimes it was as innocent as “check out these cool bands.” Sometimes it had a message like “I’m going through some stuff right now and this is my cry for help” or “I’m secretly in love with you and these songs will help me convey that.” In rare and wonderful occasions, it was a bunch of rarities or b-sides or live performances that had been passed around and copied by dedicated fans. The tape Kris gave me was the “you should be listening to these bands, because the music you listen to sucks” kind of mix tape. And listen I did. I wore that tape out. I copied it before it finally died, wore that one out, and finally retired it by buying CDs and making my own mix tapes. Belly was on that mix tape. I thought they were cool, and ended up getting their first album free when I signed up for BMG Music (Those who know what that is laughed, for everyone else, I’m sure I’ll get into the scam of BMG and Columbia House at a later date).
I listened to both of Belly’s albums today: Star (1993) and King (1995). I also listened to the EP Moon (1993) and the songs they contributed to the Mallrats and Tank Girl soundtracks.
Yeah, this post gets more steeped in Nineties crap the more I write…
It’s not surprising. Everything about Belly was quintessential Nineties. The lyrics sound like poetry scrawled into the margin of your Social Studies notebook. And not that spiral bound bullshit. I’m talking about the black and white covered composition notebook. The ones Kevin Spacey’s character uses in the movie Se7en. I, myself, wrote some of that type of poetry. Thankfully, I’ve thrown all of it away at some point. Last time I read it was twenty years ago, and it was absolutely awful. Belly’s lyrics are better than that, but they are just as vague and symbolic in all of the ways high school poetry is. So full of itself, like we all think our feelings are so complicated. Damn we were all stupid. Belly uses both types of Nineties guitar sounds, both the strumming of acoustic guitars (for the more touchy feely songs) and the over-distorted electric guitars in the vein of Sonic Youth.
The first album, Star, is very wispy and dreamy and not terribly aggressive for something called “rock.” It’s beautiful in all of it’s pensive and plodding ballads and it’s grimy anthems strike the proper balance to keep it all together. There are moments where it truly feels like the indie rock version of a lullaby. The follow-up, King, was much more rock oriented, but with the same whimsical, ethereal feel thanks to Tanya Donelly’s voice and lyrics. Depending on my mood, some days I like Star more than King and sometimes the reverse is true.
In my opinion, it’s all great. I think if I were to look at it from the outside, it would not hold up. But Belly is a time and a place for me. It’s the summer of 1993, when I was coming off of a freshman year in high school where I was absolutely miserable. And here’s this tape that my friend gave me, and on it is Belly. And Tanya Donelly has the sweetest voice singing in the rawest tones. And it made sense to me. I began to find myself because of bands like Belly.