Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Red Hot Chili Peppers - The Plasma Shaft

A moment of silence, please, for the old Echo Records store in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Back in the day, Echo was the greatest record store in all of New Zealand, in my estimation. When I lived in Christchurch, the shop was located in the Cashel Mall area on High Street, facing the now soon-to-be-demolished Hotel Grand Chancellor. Echo always had a great stock available of indie/alternative CDs from U.S. and British bands, and their local music selection (stuff like JPS Experience, Tall Dwarfs, The Clean, Chris Knox, etc.) was superb. There was another record store, Galaxy Records, further down High Street, only a few doors away. Galaxy generally had cheaper stuff available. But in terms of size and selection, Echo ran circles around this other shop. I didn't purchase many tunes in New Zealand; I've mentioned before in previous posts how ridiculously expensive CDs were in Christchurch. I preferred to buy the discs I wanted during my visits back to the States or over to Australia. But whenever I did want or need something, Echo was the venue of choice.

They used to have a frequent purchasers promotion there, that came with a little card you got punched every time you bought a full-priced album; after ten purchases, the eleventh album was free. Shortly before I left New Zealand for the first time in 1995 for grad school in Virginia, I found that I needed only two more buys to get my free CD. So, about ten days before the movers came to box up my stuff, I went downtown for my last visit to Echo.

I went into the record store with one goal in mind - I wanted Nirvana's MTV Unplugged In New York, released in November of the previous year to rave reviews, to be my free album. Other than that, I had no real idea of what else I wanted, or really any real desire to get anything else. But I hated the thought of being on the cusp of receiving my 'free' music and leaving it on the table (yeah, yeah, I know that 'free' is disingenuous, since you had to buy something to get it - but, still . . .). So I started browsing the stacks, looking for stuff even remotely interesting. I recalled recently hearing and enjoying on the University of Canterbury's indie radio station RDU the song "Diamond Shine", a cut by the New Zealand band The Clean (which had recently reformed). So I went looking for that album, Vehicle, and quickly found it. One down, one to go. But the second one to complete my set of ten was going to be tougher. I started running through the stack alphabetically, hoping something would jump out at me.

I got to the "R"s, and into the Red Hot Chili Peppers rack. Now, when the Chili Peppers first came on the scene, I thought they were the Second Coming. The first I'd ever heard of that band was on Christmas Day, 1984, when I saw the video for "True Men Don't Kill Coyotes" on MTV, and practically levitated off of my chair - they were THAT awe-inspiring. I woke up early the day after Christmas and drove through a snowstorm to the local record shop to pick up a cassette copy of their first album, featuring that song. I played that album to death, and initially became a devoted fan. Over the next couple of years, I picked up their follow-up albums (Freaky Styley (1985) and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987)) practically the moment they came out.

But I quickly began to notice that, beginning with Freaky Styley, the RHCP began to sound a litte repetitive and formulaic to me. On their first album, the band put out what, in my mind, was a very original and exciting sound - hard rockin', with a big dollop of punk and a measured dose of funk mixed in. With Freaky Styley, and especially on The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, the band seemed to radically skew that blend, heavily emphasizing the funk sound to the detriment of everything else (I guess the move to heavier funk on the former album should have been any surprise, considering that it was produced by legendary funkmeister George Clinton). I didn't want to give up on them, and I tried really hard to like the latter album. But songs like "Fight Like A Brave" and "Funky Crime" just sounded tired and contrived, and did nothing to draw me in or retain my interest. In my opinion, the Chili Peppers were trying too hard to be something they weren't, and it was a turn-off. By the late 1980s, I had pretty much thrown in the towel on the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Of course now, looking back, I see that I made a mistake in writing them off so early. Their very next album, Mother's Milk, was the record that really began the Chili Peppers' ascent into
superstardom, a rise completed by 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik, in many ways their artistic and commercial peak. I missed out on pretty much all of that as it was happening, since I had all but written the band off years earlier. But the thing about good music is that, sooner or later, it makes itself known to you. By the mid-1990s, songs from BSSM (such as "Breaking The Girl", "Give It Away" and "Under The Bridge") were in heavy rotation on radio stations around the globe, and by then even I couldn't avoid hearing them and acknowledging the greatness of this music.

So in Echo that day, I decided to get my own copy of Blood Sugar Sex Magik. I picked up the standard CD copy in the bin, and noticed a black, red and blue box directly behind it. It was for something called The Plasma Shaft, a "Special Limited Edition" two-CD set that included not only a copy of BSSM, but also an additional CD containing eight songs, including "Soul To Squeeze" (another RHCP song I'd recently heard and enjoyed as well). The price for the special edition was about NZ$35.00 (about US$20.00 at the time - I told you these friggin' things were expensive in New Zealand), slightly more than the regular BSSM copy (priced at NZ$29.00). I figured what the heck, that was a good deal for some extra songs, so I put down the disc I had and picked up The Plasma Shaft instead. That made ten (finally). I gathered up a copy of the Nirvana album on my way to the register, paid for my music, and vamoosed - my very last visit to a fine music store.

A few years ago, Echo was bought by a North Island record store chain called Real Groovy, and moved to a new location on Manchester Street. The new location was badly damaged by the February earthquake, so much so that at the end of March, the company put out a press release stating that the store would not reopen. A sad and unexpected end to a city icon. I wish the employees and customers all the best in the future, and want to just say 'thanks' for hooking me up with so much good music when I was there.

I owned this double-disc set for years before I learned that The Plasma Shaft was considered to be a Chili Peppers rarity. Apparently, this set was only released in Australia and Japan in 1994, and has never seen the light of day in the States. It has been out of print for many years; copies regularly sell for $50 to $100.

I'm not going to bother providing Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the first part of the set, here. I'm sure that should be easy enough to track down. Here, however, is the second part, containing hard-to-find outtakes and B-sides from the BSSM sessions, including "Soul To Squeeze", one of the all-time great Chili Peppers songs.

 Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think:

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Love Tractor - This Ain't No Outerspace Ship

As you can probably tell from my posts, I was (and am) a big fan of the old Athens sound, beginning with the B-52's and R.E.M., and branching out to less-well-known but still vital bands from that era like Pylon, Oh-OK and Buzz of Delight. Love Tractor was an Athens band that appeared very late on my radar, probably because what they were initially into was a bit removed from the other local bands of that time.

The band was formed in April 1980 by two local guitarists, Mike Richmond and Mark Cline, more as a way to alleviate the boredom of living in the one-horse town Athens was back then, rather than creating/joining a new musical movement. The two began gigging around Athens as a duo, accompanied at first by a drum machine. But along the way, they began adding members on bass and keyboards, and shed the drum machine for a succession of flesh-and-blood drummers (including, briefly, a pre-R.E.M. Bill Berry) before settling on Kit Schwartz behind the kit.

The major difference that set Love Tractor apart from the other bands vying for stage time at the 40 Watt Club and Tyrone's back then was in their sound - Love Tractor was a TOTALLY instrumental folk-rock band; no vocals whatsoever in their performances.

Now, I'll be honest, with very few exceptions, instrumental bands bore the shit out of me. Instrumental rock is no picnic in itself, but of all the genres, instrumental jazz ensembles have got to be the worst and most ennui-inducing for me. For example, I've recently been frequenting a local Cuban restaurant here in a sketchy part of town that features great food, dirt-cheap beer and some of the best, most eclectic live music performances in the city every weekend. In the couple of months I've been a regular at this place, I've been treated to superb groups offering up rock, big band, world music [quick shout-out on this one: the excellent band I saw there under this genre, Copal, came all the way from Brooklyn to our little burg, and featured a stunning redhead fronting the band on violin(!) and a weirdly hypnotic classical/Middle Eastern/gypsy/hip-hop sound - if that sounds like something you'd be into, run, do not walk, and pick up their latest, Into The Shadow Garden], what have you.

However, the worst band I saw there was a couple of weeks ago, when I went to the restaurant for a bite to eat and a couple of drinks. I got there fairly early in the evening, and while I ate I watched the band set up - just a quartet of nondescript young guys, sporting the apparently de rigueur look of torn jeans and scraggly post-secondary school goatees. I was looking forward to some decent music, but these guys completely disappointed me. Their entire set consisted of fifteen-twenty minute-long meandering "jazz explorations", with each player seemingly just doing his own thing. There was no visible connection/acknowledgement between the players, and as such, their music did nothing to draw the audience in. After a very short while, their music moved from boring to annoying, and I fled the venue much earlier that usual.

So, I can sort of imagine what Love Tractor was facing during their early years of playing in Athens. Cline has admitted in interviews that his was never "the most marketable band". With its shows, the band never really built up the sort of buzz and mythology that surrounds the early efforts of the B-52s (i.e., the legendary Valentine's Day party) or R.E.M. (practicing in the abandoned church). It seems that they were more admired than loved in town.

It took a while for them to find a recording contract, but Love Tractor was finally signed to DB Records in 1982. They released their first album, an all instrumental self-titled effort, later that year. Love Tractor received decent reviews, but sold poorly. For their second DB Records album, 1984's Till The Cows Come Home, the band began experimenting with actual words, adding a couple of songs with lead vocals by Richmond.

The relative success of this record, coupled with DB Records' increasingly shaky financial posture, led to the band's move to the larger Big Time Records (America) label in 1986. Their first release on their new label was 1987's This Ain't No Outerspace Ship. This album was Love Tractor's first full-scale foray into vocal rock, and in my opinion they pull it off with great success. Their sound on this record can be described as sort of a funkier R.E.M., with Richmond's twangy voice well suited to songs such as "Beatle Boots" and "Outside With Ma".

As fortune would have it, I moved to Athens shortly after this album came out, and the record was being championed by WUOG, the local independent college station. They played "Outside With Ma" to death, so much so that I fell in love with it. If I recall correctly, I bought this album on vinyl at either the Wuxtry, the famous local record shop, or at the local college co-op/music store located just down the street. It wasn't until years later that I replaced my vinyl copy with a CD version.

Love Tractor released one more album on Big Time, 1989's Themes From Venus, before breaking up later that year. The band members went on to join several other bands, but they all remained friends, and every year or so they would all get together in Athens to reconnect and write songs together. Seven years after breaking up, they reformed, and after touring around the country for several years, released a reunion record, The Sky At Night, on Razor & Tie in 2001.  They broke up again shortly afterwards.

So, here's what in my opinion is Love Tractor's best album, This Ain't No Outerspace Ship from 1987 (distributed by RCA). Be sure to check out their covers of Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up" and The Gap Band's "Party Train"! Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Thomas Mapfumo & The Blacks Unlimited - Corruption

Looking back at some of these posts, it's amazing how much of the music I enjoy was discovered on road trips to/from the casino tables in Connecticut and New Jersey (OK, so I'm a degenerate gambler - what can you do?). Here's another artist I came across during one of those trips.

I was on my way back from Atlantic City during the spring of 1992, a fairly lucrative year for me up until then. At the time, I had reached a fairly proficient level of expertise at blackjack, and had expanded my gambling repertoire a couple of years earlier to include craps, a game with only slightly worse odds than blackjack, but demanding a heck of a lot less concentration from a player [in blackjack, to reduce the house edge, it was necessary to 'count cards'; that is, keep track of certain cards as they come into play, in order to maximize your advantage when the remaining deck is rich in higher-ranking cards (tens, face cards and aces). Done right, it's very profitable - but it's hard friggin' work]. That winter, I'd been hitting places like Caesar's and the old Atlantis casino and cleaning up. Suffice to say that I was eager to visit A.C. as much as possible that year, to keep my winning streak going.

This latest trip was no different from the rest, although it started out on a down note. I made about $150 playing blackjack at Ballys, then on a whim, walked next door to the old Claridge House Casino (at the time, the smallest casino in Atlantic City - it has since been purchased and folded into the Ballys organization) to try my hand at their craps tables. The Claridge had long been a bad-luck spot for me; I don't recall ever having a winning session in the place, and as such, I tended to avoid the facility during my trips to the city. I guess that this time, I wanted to see if my luck from the place next door would carry over there.

In a word, it didn't. I got ripped for about $350 in record time on Claridge's cursed dice tables, before I wised up and staggered out of the joint. I was ticked off at my bullheaded stupidity, and went off to lick my wounds for a while before giving the tables another go. After a fortifying meal (Mr. Ray Kroc was my chef that evening), I went down the beach to the Tropicana, and over the course of the remainder of the night made back all I lost and moreso. I departed Atlantic City in the wee hours of the morning, headed back to the DC area a very happy man.

I really didn't feel that tired leaving town that night; I'd made that late-night drive many times before. It's not the most exciting drive there is, especially the portion down the Atlantic City Expressway and down I-295. The ride that night was especially boring for some reason - pitch black, and few if any other cars on the road. About an hour into the trip, I began to zone out . . .

By "zone out", I don't mean that I was falling asleep at the wheel. I was - well, "zoning out". I determined later that I had reached a state where it was as if I had two brains working separately from one another. One side of my brain was in charge of the driving, making lane changes, using turn signals, etc. - doing everything normally. The other half of my head was . . . somewhere else. It was like the road was hypnotizing me; I guess I reached a state of what some truckers call "White Line Fever". And it all seemed hunky-dory to me, as I drove on and on . . .

When I finally snapped out of my daze (God knows how long later), I found myself zipping down a secondary road in the midst of one of those big industrial areas scattered throughout southern New Jersey, filled with giant chemical and petroleum-processing plants. There wasn't another car to be seen on the road ahead of or behind me, and although I couldn't see the factories on either side of the road through the black night, I could see the lights - weird yellow-orange ones, covering the buildings, smokestacks, loading docks, etc. Although the car windows weren't open, the stench of the area was filling the car - a miasma of chemicals, toxic waste, and decaying vegetation from the swamps surrounding this godforsaken place. I had absolutely no idea where I was or how I got there; I had somehow gotten off the main highway. The overall effect of all of this was extremely spooky and disorienting. To "wake up", as it were, from a trip you've made a thousand times before, and suddenly find yourself in what appeared to be The Last Place on Earth . . . well, to say I was freaked out was an understatement. I drove on for another mile of so in a sweat, clutching the wheel, searching frantically for a place to turn around. When I finally got to one of those dirt-packed median service roads, I made a veritable 'Dukes Of Hazzard'-style high-speed U-turn, and high-tailed it out of the area as fast as I dared go.

By the time I got back to I-295 South about twenty minutes later, I was completely shaken. I felt like I had returned to Earth from Pluto, seeing the taillights and headlights of cars ahead of and behind me once again. I had been driving in silence all the way from A.C., and as I figured that might have contributed to my earlier highway stupor, I switched the radio on. It took me a while to find something listenable, but I finally landed on a tune that caught my attention; I think it was on the Philadelphia independent station, WXPN, which can usually be counted on for interesting music.

This particular tune had a weird little syncopated tempo, dominated by electric guitar and what sounded like a xylophone-type instrument, offset by hand claps between the beats. I immediately pegged it as being either Caribbean or African pop, and yet there was an underlying familiarity in the music that made it readily accessible to my Americanized ears, even if I couldn't understand a word of what the singer was saying. The song was long, over five minutes long, yet it retained my interest, especially in the superb guitar work being done on it. In my enjoyment of and concentration on the song, I gradually relaxed, letting go of the tension from my recent Mystery Drive into Chemical Horrorland. As it ended, the announcer provided the music's details: it was "Moyo Wangu" by Thomas Mapfumo & The Blacks Unlimited.

I made a note to look into this band later that day, after getting home and resting up from my trip.

Thomas Mapfumo, born in 1945, was (is) a native (one of the Shona people) of what is now known as Zimbabwe, but what was then known as the self-governing British colony of Southern Rhodesia, and later as just Rhodesia. As such, he has had a lifelong front-row seat to the turmoil in that region, living through the area's evolution from colony to federation to independent state, and through white supremacist rule, civil war, and the quasi-dictatorship of its current ruler, Robert Mugabe. Initially apolitical, Mapfumo grow up in the rural part of the country and aspired to be simply a musician; he joined his first band in his home country at the age of sixteen. For years, he crisscrossed the country as a member of one of several bands, playing American rock and soul covers.

However, in the mid-70s, he began to take an interest in the indigenous Shona music of his people and country. Shona music is traditionally played on something called a mbira, which resembles a small, finger-plucked xylophone. Mapfumo began transcribing this mbira sound to the electric guitar and other modern rock instrumentation, retaining the Shona language in the lyrics, slowly creating a new style and type of music. He was doing this work at the height of native Rhodesians' resistance movement against the country's apartheid regime led by Ian Smith. Smith's government openly repressed and denigrated native culture; Mapfumo began to realize that his work with Shona music was not only an artistic statement, but a political one as well. Without quite meaning to, he quickly became a major voice in the resistance movement. He named his new music Chimurenga, a Shona word meaning "struggle", and his lyrics began to openly advocate the violent overthrow of the white-minority Smith government.

It took a while for the apartheid government to catch on to what Mapfumo was doing/singing (apparently, none of the white leaders understood Shona), but eventually they figured it out, banned his records from state-run radio, and threw him into jail without charges in 1979. But all of this was occurring just as the white supremacist regime was on its last legs. By the end of the year, Mapfumo was out of prison, Smith was gone, and a popularly-elected black-majority government led by Mugabe was installed in the newly-renamed country of Zimbabwe. The musician emerged an immensely popular hero, hailed as the "Lion of Zimbabwe" and the voice and moral conscience of the country.

However, as the 1980s wore on, Mapfumo became more and more disillusioned with the Mugabe regime and its abuse of power. In 1989, with his band the Blacks Unlimited, Mapfumo released Corruption, a searing and none-too-subtle critique of Zimbabwe's government, with incendiary song titles like "Muchadura [You Will Confess]" and "The Kupera Kwevanhu [Perishing to the People]" ("Moyo Wangu [My Heart]" was also included on this album). Needless to say, Mugabe and Co. were none too pleased at this criticism from a once-ally, and they began making life difficult for Mapfumo, making him the target of endless government harassment and phony accusations of wrongdoing. Finally, Mapfumo could take no more, and fled with his family into exile in the United States. Today, he lives in Oregon, and continues to make music and speak out again the abuses of Mugabe's government against Zimbabwe, the country he loves.

So, here it is, a superb example of African pop and music that helped unfreakify me on a late night drive long ago, Corruption by Thomas Mapfumo & The Blacks Unlimited, released in 1989 on Mango Records. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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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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