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Review: Stella Donnelly’s Real-Talking Indie-Pop Gem ‘Beware of the Dogs’

The Australian singer-songwriter takes on toxic masculinity, bad jobs and other modern perils on her excellent debut

stella donnelly

Pooneh Ghana

Stella Donnelly spools out the kind of cuddle-core guitar pop that traditionally goes best with cardigan sweaters and shy glances in the dustiest recesses of the local used bookstore. But the Australian singer-guitarist is hardly the retiring type. “Your personality traits don’t count/If you put your dick in someone’s face/And no, it’s never too late/We sat there silently while you kept your job/And your place and your six-figure wage,” she sings on her #Metoo masterpiece “Old Man.”

Donnelly’s gently conversational singing and acerbic drollery evokes a vaunted lineage of indie-rock real-talkers from Jonathan Richman and Belle & Sebastian to Courtney Barnett and Free Cake For Every Creature; musically she recalls the spare, strummy charm of K Records champs like the Softies or the cocktail-hour prettiness of Ivy. But Beware of the Dogs is a triumph on its own terms, going from high point to high point as she maps the pains, pleasures and anxieties of her personal patch of twentysomething bohemia.

Donnelly first got attention for her 2017 song “Boys Will Be Boys” a meticulous indictment of rape culture that’s an unshakably powerful centerpiece here. “Your father told you that you’re innocent/told ya women rape themselves,” she sings over a guitar that’s pointedly ironic in its reassuring softness, making every line feel more devastating than the last. Elsewhere, she wields her wit as a weapon against a world that shows little interest in meeting her expectations – “Tricks” takes on the perils of dating a selfish drunk and “You Owe Me” is a casual kiss-off to a life-sucking job. She’s just as funny during the album’s moments of warmth and tenderness; see “Mosquito,” a charming dream-pop ode to gluten free affection (“Your name is up in lights and baby you deserve it/I want to bring you cake back home from work but you’re allergic”).

This being an indie album in 2019, her vibrator makes a prominent appearance (on a Tuesday afternoon, naturally). But slacker recreation always leads to deeper truths. “Watching Telly” turns what should be a simple, funny bit of couch-jockey comedy into a commentary on the inextricable link between sexism and capitalist commodification. The combination of humor and craft means she always makes it out of the most harrowing situations looking like a hero. Even in a song like “Die,” where her reckless mate nearly drives off a cliff that seems more literal than metaphorical, the glazed guitars, sunny Casio beat and pure spirit of her songwriting keeps her shaky reality rolling forward.

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