Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Belly - Slow Dust EP
When I worked for a large financial institution in Rhode Island back in the early 2000s, I became good friends with my boss's administrative assistant, Sue. Sue's husband, a former newspaperman, had recently died, and she was left on her own to raise a teenage son. Despite this adversity and these setbacks in her life, Sue was just about the nicest, sweetest person you could ever want to meet in a corporate setting. I sometimes felt bad for her, because her (that is, our) boss was somewhat of a dick, and kept her jumping with demands that were sometimes frivolous. I guess technically she was my admin too, but I made a point of rarely asking her to do anything for me - I was a big boy, and was old enough at that point to do my own copying and stapling.
By the middle part of the decade, both Sue and I had left the company, but we remained in touch over the years. She continued working here and there, and ended up putting her son through college and grad school (he's now a Boston attorney). She also remarried, this time to a droll, charming older gentleman who is her perfect match. Over the years, she settled into a new life of semi-leisure with her new husband, living the genteel Newport lifestyle and doting over her now-extended family, which included several grandchildren on her husband's side. She also retained the media and political connections she made when her first husband was alive, so she was fully plugged into what was happening in the state. I left the state for a time, all the while hearing from her every so often and getting the news regarding our old office mates and whatever else was happening up in Rhode Island.
A couple of months ago, Sue extended me an invitation to the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies, an annual affair where the state's media community roasts Rhode Island's state and national government officials and lampoons the political stories that made regional headlines over the past year. From what I understood, it was to be a pretty hoity-toity affair, with most if not all of the state's leading politicians in attendance, so generally it's pretty hard for the average Joe to get into. But Sue was able to use her late husband's connections to get an entire table in her name.
Now, stuff like this is generally not my bag. I figured it was going to be pretty snobby, and very "deep politics"-oriented, referring to people and events here that I knew little if anything about. But I hadn't seen Sue in a long time, and I assumed that she wouldn't steer me wrong and invite me to something that I would find miserable and stultifying. So I accepted her invitation. At the very least, I thought, they'd probably have some decent grub.
So on an icy, snowy Saturday night in late February, I drove to the venue, the Venus De Milo banquet facility in nearby Swansea, MA (I guess there was no place in Rhode Island large enough to handle an event like this). I arrived to find the place packed with what I assumed were Rhode Island's elite, most of whom were distinguished grey-haired hawk-eyed gents in tuxedos, escorting their bejeweled blue-haired wives. Not a lot of younger 'talent' in evidence, but I figured as much before I got there. There was a period of mingling/glad-handing before the actual banquet and show. So I got a drink at the bar, then made my way to the edge of the crowd to observe the human sideshow. I spotted the new governor, Lincoln Chafee, fairly quickly, and during the course of the night I saw, and spoke with, both of Rhode Island's U.S. senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse. After a time, I tired of hobnobbing, and went in search of Sue's table.
I found her seated in the banquet hall with her husband and two other couples she had also invited to share her table. I settled into my place as Sue introduced me to her friends. She motioned to the older couple sitting next to me as a "Mr. & Mrs. Gorman, from Newport". I nodded politely and shook hands with them. Then Sue added this little bombshell, "Their sons used to be musicians. Have you ever heard of a band called Belly?"
I was jolted, and whirled toward the Gormans. "You're Chris and Tom's parents?", I all but shouted. They were obviously extremely pleased that I knew of their children and that band. Shoot, way back when, I was a BIG Belly fan.
Belly was formed in 1991 by Tanya Donelly and Fred Abong, both Newport natives and former members of the critically-acclaimed Throwing Muses. Donelly co-founded Throwing Muses as a fifteen-year-old high school student in 1981 with her half-sister Kristin Hersh. Ostensibly equals within the group, by the time the Muses released their fourth album, The Real Ramona, in 1991, Hersh's prolific songwriting output and overall aesthetic were almost completely eclipsing Donelly's role, relegating her to that of little more than sideman to Hersh's vision. This led to rising tensions within the band.
Actually, the tensions within Throwing Muses were evident way back in 1988, soon after the release of the band's second album House Tornado. In support of this album, the Muses went on a European tour with a band recently signed to 4AD opening for them - The Pixies. Over the course of that tour, Donelly and Pixies bassist Kim Deal began bonding, as they were both in similar circumstances within their respective bands - reduced to supporting a dominant frontperson's sound and vision. The two began discussing a side project to work on together during their bands' recording hiatus, the result of which was the formation of The Breeders and the subsequent release of Pod in 1990.
But with The Breeders, Donelly once again found herself in a familiar role - second banana to someone else. Donelly only contributed to one song on Pod; the rest had been penned by Deal during and just after the 1988 tour. Although critically acclaimed, Pod was not a strong seller. At the same time, both The Pixies and Throwing Muses were gearing up for their next albums (Trompe Le Monde and The Real Ramona, respectively), forcing the Breeders to go on hiatus. Dispirited with her experience working with/for Deal, Donelly halfheartedly rejoined her band for the recording session, a group which now featured Fred Abong on bass, a replacement for the recently departed founding member Leslie Langston. Once again, Donelly's contributions to the new Muses album were minimal; she received writing credits on only two ("Honeychain" and "Not Too Soon") of the twelve album cuts (however, "Two Step" is credited to "Throwing Muses", so I guess she gets partial credit there as well), all of which were buried on Side 2.
Apparently, these twin disappointments within a year in getting her music released were the last straw for Donelly. The Real Ramona was released in March 1991; she left both The Breeders and Throwing Muses that summer, taking Fred Abong from the latter band back to Newport with her. There, she reconnected with the Gorman brothers, childhood friends who had become musicians themselves, playing in a regional hardcore punk band called Verbal Assault. The four united as Belly, and quickly signed a recording/distribution deal with 4AD, her previous band's label.
Belly entered the studio in Warren, RI in the spring of 1992; their first release, the four-song Slow Dust EP, came out in late June of that year. Donelly wrote every word and note of the EP, and she had to feel some sort of vindication when the EP became a sensation and smashing success in the UK, where it reached Number One on the country's indie charts. It also received significant airplay here in the States; my local alternative station, WHFS, had it on heavy rotation during the summer of 1992. I bought that EP the moment it came out here, and played it to death on my car's CD player.
On the strength of the EP, 4AD rush-released Belly's first full-length album, Star, in January 1993, again with all songs written by Donelly (three of the songs off the EP were included on the album). 4AD's optimism was rewarded - Star was an unexpected hit in the U.S., garnering Gold record status with over 800,000 copies sold (2 million + worldwide), spawning three Modern Rock chart hits ("Feed The Tree", "Slow Dog", and "Gepetto") and later being nominated for two Grammy awards. The album also reached #2 on the UK album charts, thrashing anything the Muses ever put out over there (or The Breeders, for that matter). Donelly had to feel on top of the world at that point. Belly was so huge in 1993 that, for their tour that summer, their opening band was Radiohead.
Unfortunately, 1993 was Belly's peak. For some reason, Fred Abong quit the band shortly after the release of Star, altering the band's overall sound to something 'rockier' and more mainstream. Belly's sophomore effort, 1995's King, was not well-received due to this change in sound, selling only a fraction of what Star did. Donelly broke up the band soon afterwards.
Since then, Tanya Donelly has released several solo albums of middling success, and even reconciled with Kirstin Hersh, since 2000 appearing on stage and on record occasionally at Throwing Muses reunions. Fred Abong dabbled around with music for a while, then went back to school. He recently received an MA in Humanities from Salve Regina University in Newport. And in chatting with their parents, I learned that the Gorman brothers now have a photography studio in Brooklyn, and apparently are doing well with that. It was weird but cool talking to the Gormans at that event. Here I was, in the midst of some pretty "inside" political discussion and bantering, listening to them talk about heading over to Europe with their sons for part of their band's tour, hanging out backstage at their concerts (yes, she actually met Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood during the '93 tour, and said they were "nice boys"), and having Kristin Hersh over at their house for lunch. It's funny who you end up meeting, in the most unlikely venues, eh?
Anyway, here's Belly's first release, the Slow Dust EP, put out by 4AD in England and distributed in America by Sire Records. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think:
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