Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sample and Hold

Artist: Belly
Album: Star
Source: Bought new

One of the serious advantages the Interweb has brought to obsessive music buyers 'round the world is the ability to sample the goods before you buy the whole meal. While not quite like the vinyl-filled listening booths of old, a site like Amazon or eMusic lets you hear a snippet of the songs for free, to get a sense of whether or not you want to go whole hog. Only like Neil Young when he's playing acoustic? Dip into 30 seconds of the new tunes just to make sure he's not riding with Crazy Horse on this one. Prefer your electronic music sans vocals? Double-check that new Morr offering in half-minute slices to ensure there aren't any processed vox in the mix.

Before the modern, post-AOL era, though, it wasn't so easy. You could read the reviews, but like the man said: you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine (aimed at your average Music Nerd). You could get a personal recommendation, but those are so personal-taste driven that you couldn't always count on a slam dunk. More often than not, you just had to roll the dice on something new and see what came up.

Or you could be converted at a show. From the Lounge Lizards in '94 to the Mekons at CMJ to to a recent encounter with the Arcade Fire at Judson Church in NYC, there's nothing quite like that ear-bending, mind-altering concert to show you something you can't believe you'd been missing. It's a communal, Bacchanalian moment of personal transformation that puts a sound inside your head that never quite comes out again.

To my very great surprise, 90s alt-rock band Belly has turned out to be one of those bands...but I couldn't have told you so at the time. I was in the middle of a semester abroad at the University of Glasgow, and Belly was playing at the student union. I knew Tanya Donnely had been in the Throwing Muses (whom I'd never heard) and the Breeders (whom I most certainly had), and that was about as far as it went. But it was live music that required almost no effort to go to, and anyway I was taking all my courses pass/fail. Why not?

Why not, indeed. The show was...well, to be honest it was just pretty good. Tanya had good songs, a nice voice and looked damned nice on stage. The bass player was a woman with a muscle-T and a backwards baseball cap, who jumped around like she was in L7, not a group doing mostly dreamy, mid-tempo pop (Dorky Trivia Note: said bassist, Gail Greenwood, actually ended up subbing in L7 years later). And the other two guys were...the other two guys. Unremarkable, but they got the job done.

As is often my wont (especially then), the show was enough to inspire me to pick up the record. And Star was a lot like the show: entirely likable, with some parts ("Slow Dog," "Feed the Tree") more remarkable than others ("Untogether," "Witch"), which were just OK. I listened, probably played some tracks on my radio show once or twice, but largely forgot about it.

Not entirely, though. I pulled Star out from time to time, like a lot of my old records. And a couple of years ago...well, I finally had that moment, like a time-release delayed reaction from the show. Suddenly, Star sounded great. Each tune set up the next just so; the production pointed out little bits of ear candy that sweetened each treat; the instruments sang the songs in ways that complemented and extended Tanya's honey-kissed voice. Here I was, in my 30s, walking around New York unable to get songs from my 20s out of my head - not so odd, except I hadn't had these exact same songs in my head when I was in my 20s.

Go figure.

I wonder if Star is here to stay. I didn't love it when it was current and, in theory, more lovable (or perhaps just more fashionable, I suppose), so maybe it will fall from the sweet spot of my ear as time goes on. I think if I shopped for this now, the 30-second-sample way, I'd pass on it about 90 seconds in. But with 90 months or so for time and the songs and the whole thing to do its work, Belly turned a convenient concert into one that sent me shopping for a disc I'm glad I didn't miss.

SISOSIG? Luckily, I didn't start this project a few years ago, or Star would have hit the trash heap. Either the record was ahead of its time or I was just in the wrong moment to appreciate its considerable charms back in 1993. Either way, it's one I wouldn't want to be without.


  • I've just recently been listening to Star again - maybe inspired by This Hungry Life which is the best Tanya Donnelly album possibly since...or maybe by the Star demos she's put up on her website. It's a fine album to dip into occasionally.

    By Anonymous andy, at 11:11 AM  

  • Y'know the same thing happened to me. During my brief gig at Radio Nova, I found hundreds of CDs from the 90s that weren't locked away in the Playlist Vault. Belly was among the CDs I picked up and burned (and put back, btw.) I had it on cassette, I think, from college days. I remembered the pop song, "Feed the Tree" and was pleasantly surprised at how good the rest of the album sounded. Like you said, I thought it was OK then, but it sounds really good now. Who knew? It's absolutely a keeper.

    By Blogger Heather, at 3:04 PM  

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