Star (Sire/reprise)

By Bob Bahr

This is singer/songwriter Tanya Donelly's album, but her bandmates in Belly – Thomas Gorman on guitar, Fred Abong on bass, and Chris Gorman on drums – perfectly execute her ideas. Donelly, formerly of Throwing Muses, works her voice in varied ways on Star, a widely reaching album wholly deserving of its perch at the top of the Gavin Report's College Album chart. Lots of music is disserviced by categorization, but Belly is an extreme example. It's rock, but it's like discovering a whole new cuisine, with each song a different, delectable dish.

"Someone to Die For" begins the proceedings with Donelly singing with the simple accompaniment of one electric guitar. "Someone to Die For" is as good as anything to introduce Donelly's sometimes childlike, sometimes siren-like singing, breathy and wholly feminine. She moves easily to a country belt with "Feed the Tree," triple-tracks her voice on several tunes, wails away on the hard-driving material.

The instrumental grounding offered for her vocal lilts, whispers and shouts is not just safe supporting sounds, but a force of its own. Donelly's voice is undeniably the lead instrument, but the gentle grooves and the repeated guitar figures written into the songs make for interesting music even when her mic is dormant.

A strong reverb on the vocals and the My Bloody Valentine texture of cuts like "Low Red Moon" and the insistent "Gepetto" make it moody and dark, although Belly is airier and somehow Southern. If filmmaker Wim Wenders shot a Gothic film set in the American South, Star would be a perfect soundtrack.

There's an eeriness about much of Star, which makes the more straightforward cuts a shock. The songs seem to come from a netherworld, mostly due to the tone and mood, with the hard-to-reconcile rockers suggesting a vision of ghouls dancing a hoedown. "Feed the Tree," with its easily decipherable yet oh-so-cryptic lyrics, demonstrates this quality and Donelly's intriguing songwriting abilities. She sings in one verse:

This old man I used to be

Spins round and round and round the tree

Silver baby come to me

I'll only hurt you in my dreams

I know all this and more...

Then the chorus kicks in, with mysterious messages and a vague metaphor. Donelly doesn't shirk from the macabre in both lyrics and music, but she is no dark messenger in the Roger Waters mold. Innocent feelings run side by side with sinister passages, and truly imaginative images drawn from realistic situations cement Star in our common world.

Donelly is neither a detached observer nor an unapproachable artiste. She does ask the listener to take a few steps in the dark. And that makes Star an album with deep pleasures. Belly blithely ignores the supposed limitations of modern rock music while changing the genre from within.