This Hungry Life
Tanya Donelly has been writing and recording innovative, eclectic but always evocative music for more than 20 years now, first with her stepsister Kristin Hersh in the critically acclaimed punkabilly band Throwing Muses, then with The Pixies' Kim Deal in the alternative-rock band The Breeders (who had a hit with “Cannonball”) and finally fronting her own band Belly (which hit the pop charts in the ‘90s with “Feed the Tree.”)
Ten years ago, she finally stepped out into the solo spotlight to release Lovesongs for Underdogs a strong solo debut that sounded much like Belly but with a determined pop-rock vibe. Her next album, beautysleep would take five years to appear, following the birth of her first daughter. That sophomore effort took a completely different attack – very moody and atmospheric, with heart-wrenching songs spun from the emotional soul of a young mom. Donelly's third solo album, Whiskey Tango Ghosts appeared in 2004, and put some of the guitar twang that she has always toyed with in the driver's seat, for a very country-esque album.
All this set the stage for This Hungry Life her latest release, which is a CD of all-new material that was actually recorded live in front of an audience in the elegant lobby of an old, closed-down hotel. The album was recorded immediately following the release of Whiskey Tango Ghosts two years ago, but has only now been released, following the birth of her second daughter.
Joining Donelly on guitars are her husband Dean Fisher (formerly of Juliana Hatfield Three) and Rich Gilbert (of Frank Black and the Catholics) who adds the pedal steel twang. In addition, the band features an upright bass and violins, making for an organic, rootsy background sound to augment Donelly's ethereal vocals.
The disc moves from the foot-tapping full-band celebration of her home in the opener “New England” to the more spare and achingly beautiful twang of “World On Fire” where she asks in her typically oblique poetry: “the world is on fire/so how am I still in the dark?”
Donelly explores spiritual crisis in “Kundalini Slide” and the soul of a troubled mother in “Littlewing.” In the latter song, atop a quietly shuffling brush cymbal and violin slide, she spins a spooky, magical fable, telling her daughter of how she has been struck by lightning at key moments of her life and warning the child to leave home before this curse finds her too:
“run from your people
we pull the fire from the sky
I want to tell you everything
I want to spare you everything
The album's centerpiece is its titletrack, a haunting, reverb-rich ballad where Donelly muses on the nature of one person's life, offering honesty about the “smallness” of our place, but with a ray of hope:
“and the rain comes and the rain goes again
and you see this as some symbol of your pain
This hungry life won't let you out whole
but you can change a thing or two/before you go
this hungry life
might not leave you with much
but you can change your story.”
The 10-song disc includes a somber cover of George Harrison's “Long Long Long” and closes with a duet with Buffalo Tom's Bill Janowitz on the rousing “River Girls.” The latter song ends the disc on a strong note, leaving the listener thirsting for more.
If you loved “Feed the Tree” and have wondered whatever happened to Donelly and Belly, or if you just enjoy your pop mixed with a bit of twang and inventive imagery, don't miss this album. This Hungry Life is one of the best CDs of the year!