It’s been so long since onetime 120 Minutes mainstays Belly put out an album, that a rapper with the same moniker now dominates Google searches for the word “Belly.” That lack of activity has relegated a band that put out a Gold album (1994’s Star), scored a video hit with “Feed the Tree” and was nominated for two Grammys to something of a footnote, albeit a wistfully remembered one. (For peak nostalgia, check out their contributions to the Mallrats and With Honors soundtracks, or their cover of “Are You Experienced?” from the 1993 Jimi Hendrix covers LP Stone Free). But on Dove, Belly’s first full-length since 1995’s King, that distance works to their advantage.
Although they’ve maintained a cult fanbase – thanks to leader Tanya Donelly, who was also a founding member of Throwing Muses and later the Breeders, and who has continued to play Belly songs live – the band seems to have made Dove free of expectations. From the introductory volume swell of album opener “Mine,” which sounds like the band playing AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock” in slow motion, to the delicate acoustic closing ballad, “Heartstrings,” the LP maintains a through-line to the fuzzy alt-rock of Star and sharper corners of King, but it never comes off musty.
That’s not to say that it’s not still steeped in Nineties nostalgia, traversing neo-psychedelia, indie-folk and a few techno flourishes. There are still chunky riffs (“Shiny One”), tremulous guitar textures (“Faceless”) and orchestral strings (“Girl”), all bolstered by Donelly’s vocal performances, which range from light and airy to harsh and forceful, depending on the mood of the lyrics. There’s even a “hidden track,” a true novelty in the digital era, called “Starry Eyed,” and they should be commended for the fact that it is not a re-recording of “Feed the Tree” as so many other bands might attempt on a comeback record. But as a whole, it comes off as its own statement, and it’s another offering in the long trend of alt-era bands issuing fresh, good music in 2018.
If anything, the group sounds 20 years better and more equipped at making Belly music, with its intricate textures, smart vocal harmonies and lyrics about grown-up concerns. On “Suffer the Fools,” Donelly sings about a breakup or a divorce that ends amicably with a rare candor: “Keep on pissing me off,” she sings amid acoustic guitar and strings that recall the psychedelic Sixties band Love, “because I’d rather suffer you than suffer the fools.” On the apocalyptic-sounding “Army of Clay,” with its Twilight Zone guitar intro and Donelly’s cutting vocal style, she sings, “You can’t be brave if you’re not afraid/You can’t be saved and come out unscathed.” And on “Artifact,” where they amp up some country-tinged twang, Donelly doles out gambling metaphors to console a broken man, only to sing, “Pull up that shot, the one where we’re laughing hard/Check out that glow there over your eye, well, you look more like yourself than ever here.”
On Dove, Belly sound as though they kept going, almost as if the album is a follow-up to an LP from a couple of years ago. It’s a comfortable return for a band that didn’t worry itself with fitting into a particular pop or rock moment back in the day, and still had enough in common to make meaningful, quality music. And that’s still true today – Google search status notwithstanding.