Tanya Donelly – This Hungry Life

Tanya Donelly
This Hungry Life

Given Ms. Donelly’s impressive rock resume, I expected more from This Hungry Life. I wanted more of the visceral post punk that graced Throwing Muses’ seven studio albums, more of the energetic alternative rock of the Breeders, and more of the sprightly guitar pop of Belly. Or even better, more of the impressive blithe pop of her polished solo debut Lovesongs For Underdogs. At times This Hungry Life hints at Donelly’s brilliant past but for the most part it’s a kinder, gentler and leaner rock sound and perhaps her most personal work yet.

However, you don’t survive over 20 years in this business without constantly pushing the envelope and taking chances while writing songs people can relate to. This philosophy has extended into This Hungry Life, and for that Donelly should be commended. The entire album was recorded in front of a small, live audience over one hot summer weekend in Vermont. A noble idea with the intent of capturing the energy between artist and audience, though it is pointed out that this is much less a live album than an album recorded live. Donelly says “The focus was not to capture a show, but rather to make a record with people there”. The sound quality is better than what you would expect from a live album. In fact the only hint that this album was recorded live is the occasional smattering of applause between tracks. Sitting in as Tanya’s band are husband and guitarist Dean Fisher, Rich Gilbert (Frank Black and the Catholics) also on guitar and pedal steel, Arthur Johnson (Come) on drums, Joe McMahon on upright bass, Joan Wasser (Lou Reed, Antony and the Johnsons) on the violin, and Bill Janovitz (Buffalo Tom) on vocals.

The album opens nicely with “NE” which is one of a handful of higher energy songs that boasts the rich, layered guitar sounds we have become accustomed to hearing from Donelly’s previous bands. In addition to “NE”, some of the more dynamic and vibrant tunes include “Kundalini Slide”, “Days Of Grace” and “River Girls” which employ a full band sound and lean more towards her indie-rock roots. Unfortunately interspersed between these radiant rockers are some leaner and slower ballads, including a cover of George Harrison’s “Long Long Long”, where the violins are used more like fiddles and the pedal steel guitar nudge these tracks over the line into country terrain, although lyrically more pensive and erudite.

The saving grace in all of this, of course, is Donelly’s voice and singing. There is certainly no lack of emotion and she uses her distinctive voice in such a way that it sounds both pretty and hauntingly surreal at the same time. So whether it is a slow-burning, melancholic ballad or a nimble pop song, and no matter what the subject matter, it is always easy on the ears.

While This Hungry Life shows flashes of Ms. Donelly’s past indie-rock excellence, the leaner, more mature and country-ish sound is somewhat of a disappointment since the essence of rock and roll is to maintain that edgy, rebellious streak even as we age. But at least she is continuing, and willing, to explore new musical avenues and, as always, creating emotional songs while singing from the heart and having fun at the same time which is also what rock and roll is all about.