Of all the negative things to come out of the '90s alternative music boom, one of the positives was how the surge of interest in alternative styles of music allowed female fronted groups to move to the forefront. While women rockers like Janis Joplin, Blondie and Joan Jett had experienced success in the male-dominated rock world with and without the use of their sex appeal, those artists seemed to be the exception to the rule.
But in the post-Nirvana world, the likes of Kim Deal of The Pixies and The Breeders, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, and to some extent, Courtney Love, were able to move to the forefront without having to sex themselves up or down to either appeal to men or to blend into the male-dominated scene. They could be girls but they could still rock, and in a real way, not in the pop songs in rock clothing way that Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson have made so popular this decade. Yet their songs retained a distinctly and unabashedly feminine sound. These women weren't trying to make up for anything, they were self-assured enough to do their own thing, knowing it would attract an audience.
Belly was not only part of this emerging scene, they were, in a sense, a product of it. Having cut her teeth as a songwriter and singer in female dominated indie bands Throwing Muses and the aforementioned The Breeders, Newport, Rhode Island native Tanya Donelly decided to start her own project which she dubbed "Belly"--a word she found "both pretty and ugly." Formed in 1991, Belly hit the scene just in time for women-in-rock's big break--a break that would pave the way for everyone from 4 Non Blondes to Luscious Jackson (incidentally, both upcoming installments to The Second Single).
Belly first hit with the Slow Dust EP in 1992, which shot to number one on the British indie charts. At first listen, the group's sound wasn't dissimilar from that of Donelly's old groups--but there's a bit more of a shoegaze influence going on with Donelly's vocals buried in a mix of sparkling reverb behind a wall of distorted guitars all enveloping the hooky melodies. The group often drew comparisons to so-called "dream pop" bands like The Sundays and Lush, and the influence is clear--but Belly were contemporaries of these bands, and most likely the artists all had a reciprocal relationship.
It wasn't long before Belly had a full length record in the can and a big hit on their hands in Britain--the album, 1993's Star (Sire/Reprise), hit number two on the British charts. The group's success in the UK wasn't unexpected--they had been signed to the Brit label 4AD across the pond--but Belly's success in their home country was a bit more surprising.
The first single, "Feed the Tree" is what did it. The strangely intriguing lyrics, powerhouse chorus, sexy vocals and of course, the oddly literal video, garnered the group top spots on MTV's Buzz Bin and Alternative Nation (a big deal at the time for all you youngsters). The song reached #1 on the Modern Rock charts and while it barely eked into the Billboard 100 (it reached #95), it didn't matter--by that time modern rock radio had emerged as the format to be reckoned with and MTV was beginning to have as much impact as Top 40. Star was a certified gold record.
The group followed "Feed the Tree" with a song from their first EP that had been rerecorded for the album, "Gepetto." The song is a beautifully constructed singalong, perhaps even catchier than "Tree," though it lacked the unusual sensuality that the hit possessed. The song reached #8 on the Modern Rock charts and failed to chart on the Billboards. A third single, "Slow Dog" was released and hit #17 on the Modern Rock charts.
Belly - Gepetto
Belly would only make one more album, 1995's King. The album revealed Donelly delving even further into mainstream pop-rock, leaving behind any indication that she was once an indie queen. The album was a risk--leaving behind the old indie fan base in favor of mainstream success. Unfortunately, the plan backfired--King wasn't a hit with mainstream audiences and left old Belly fans either angry or scratching their heads. Not to mention it was ill-timed--the same modern rock radio that had embraced Belly two years earlier had now turned its attention back towards male dominated hard rock, leaving little room for the spacey pop Belly provided. It might be a good time to note that Belly's appearance on Rolling Stone (top of the page) was published during their promotion for King.
The band broke up in 1996. Immediately after the break up, Donnelly embarked on a solo career, releasing a solo EP, Sliding and Diving, the same year. A year later she released her full length debut, Lovesongs for Underdogs and has since released three more solo albums to little fanfare but much critical acclaim. Her sound has veered away from the pop-rock she was known for and towards sparsely arranged country influenced acoustic folk-pop.
In 2000, Donelly reunited with the Throwing Muses for a couple of shows, and while a Belly reunion has yet to materialize, Donelly still plays her hit songs at her solo shows.
FIRST SINGLE: A
SECOND SINGLE: A
Download: Belly - Feed the Tree
Download: Belly - Gepetto
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