Lovesongs for Underdogs (Reprise 46495)
I know I'm not the only person who continues to harbor a nostalgic affection for the great lost bands of the early-to-mid '90s, when the world grew suddenly optimistic and then just as suddenly grew bitterly cynical. Blame tabloid TV, or my generation's collective college experience, or "whatever." I mourn Belly, who may not have ever sold as many records as, say, Smash Mouth, but who made music of much greater permanence.
I'm sure the grungy girl pop of the mid '90s will soon seem laughable, if in fact it does not already, to the next wave of know-it-alls weaned on ska. But maybe, if we all cross our fingers, a few of the good ones will always be thought of as influences. I should say that I never really bought into the whole "120 Minutes" thing, but when I did like an alternative band, I really liked 'em. Belly was one of those bands, and when I found out they had broken up, I was shocked. I kept waiting for the next record, and it never came, then all of a sudden Tanya Donelly was coming out with a solo album. Why had no one told me? I am still bitter at the world for that.
My point is, I am blind to whether this type of music is uncool to still like, but I do still like it. Tanya Donelly's Lovesongs For Underdogs continues where Belly left off, and may in fact be her best work yet. She is one of the best songwriters I have ever heard, and uses her limited voice to great effect (if sometimes a bit preciously). (I should add, though, that she is terrible live, possessing probably the most preening and self-conscious stage presence I have ever seen. Two of the worst shows I have been to were a King tour Belly show and a Tanya Donelly show from the tour for this album. But let's discuss the album's merits and not digress any further.)
Virtually every song on the album is strong, suffering only in parts from Tanya's tendency toward self-obsessive indulgence. Her songwriting has never been better (except "Feed The Tree"): "Pretty Deep" is a great single (like "Now They'll Sleep") that unfolds to offer more with every listen. "The Bright Light" and "Landspeed Song" are two more fast rock songs with great melodies. "Mysteries of the Unexplained" is another of Donelly's waltz-time acoustic songs (inventive as she is, she really loves that 3/4 strumming pattern) with some great and some so-so lyrics.
"Lantern" is a fun, obtuse little distorted guitar song, followed by "Acrobat," one of Donelly's best acoustic offerings yet. "Breathe Around You" gets a little bluesy, and "Bum" picks it up with a really driving beat and, um, more distorted guitars. I suppose no one told her this kind of thing is pretty out of vogue, but she makes it work, fortunately. I mean, if you've got a great song, it will suffer the guitars. By the way, will someone tell Neil Young that it's not the other way around?
"Clipped" is another one of her Danny Elfman songs, then comes the brilliant "Goat Girl," another song I could listen to hundreds of times. Luscious, delicious song. Great interplay of several acoustic guitars and overdubbed vocal harmonies. Wonderful lyrics: "And I do my brutish best."
The album closes with two small epics, "Manna" and "Swoon." By the end, your brain has automatically smoothed over the lesser songs and leaves you with the impression of having experienced a perfect album. Tanya Donelly may be a master of trickery, but I love being fooled by her shiny packages. One of the best albums released in 1997, Lovesongs For Underdogs deserves some of the attention from the record buying public that hangs on to the idea that Paula Cole and Jewel are any good. In a musical climate where homogenous is the rule, Tanya Donelly is definitely a goat girl "kicking up tin cans." She is a reminder that as cool as VH-1 appears to get, the mainstream will always lack flavors that are too spicy. I appreciate a bit of clunkiness in artists the sound of risks being taken. Albums shouldn't be perfectly smooth; even Rumours could have used some loosening up.
Maybe someone will get it into their head to drag Tanya Donelly up into the airbrush crowd, somehow I doubt it will happen. The age of "modern rock" has pretty much passed, but I feel that she will keep the flame alive to remind us that it wasn't always bad music.
Review by Scott Piney