[2 August 2004]
By now you would think the music world would awaken from its slumber land, rub its drowsy eyes, and begin to acknowledge to extensive musical legacy of Tanya Donelly. Over the course of her two decades in the limelight she’s been the consummate bandmate, playing a pivotal role in the development of Throwing Muses and the Breeders, and a brilliant musical leader, as the driving force behind the commercially and critically successful combo Belly. After the demise of Belly following the King album, Donelly set out on her own to forge an extraordinary but unheralded solo career. Her debut Lovesongs for Underdogs is a lost classic, a textbook example of the beauty of female power pop, while her sophomore album Beautysleep found Donelly shaking out her Stevie Nicks demons by turning towards a more organic and languid storytelling style reminiscent of Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac. Given her artistic trajectory, it should come as no surprise that Donelly has once again turned a new corner this time settling in the porch swing to explore acoustic country and delicate vocal music for her third solo flight, Whiskey Tango Ghosts.
The switch from straightforward pop music to a more tender country strain of acoustic rock is no momentary or fleeting gambit. Donelly’s penchant for stirring country rock first surfaced more than a decade ago when she recorded a cover of Gram Parson’s “Hot Burrito #2” as a b-side on Belly’s Gepetto EP. Picking up where she left off 10 years past, Donelly, joined by husband, occasional co-writer and guitarist, Dean Fisher has produced a swirling post-country masterpiece that unfurls itself slowly over the course of twelve compositions. The plaintive mood of this album is a slow burn, seeping into the listener’s consciousness over time, not revealing itself suddenly, but rather releasing its dandelion of pop dander into the wind in a measured but carefree manner.
Although all 13 tracks are dusty gems, “Every Devil” and “Butterfly Thing” will likely to be the first to grab you followed closely by “My Life As a Ghost” and “The Promise”. Donelly’s delicate vocal is breathy and thoughtful as it wafts over acoustic guitar, the nuanced piano work of Elizabeth Steen and subtle percussion. These four tracks may be built around transcendent choruses that recall Donelly’s past works, but somehow she finds a way to filter them through a new and refreshing sensibility.
Besides the stylistic shift to more acoustic country tinged recordings Donelly also centers Whiskey Tango Ghosts around a consistent lyrical theme. Throughout the album she returns to interactions with the supernatural as a driving force in her romantic explorations. She works through a relationship while spirits flit in the background (“Whiskey Tango”), discusses the beauty of living in the material world after death (“My Life As a Ghost”), and senses a presence in the room with her (“The Center”) as she sorts out the details of her life. While this may sound like the musical equivalent of a M. Night Shyamalan film, there is a consistent uplifting, hopeful quality that rings through Donelly’s honeycombed voice. She may be speaking of the ethereal but she only uses it to emphasize the importance of her earthly relationships. This becomes apparent when she steps solely into the physical world and openly talks about romantic love (“The Promise”) and her fears of losing it (“Just In Case You Quit Me”).
With her new acoustic direction it would be remiss to review Whiskey Tango Ghosts without discussing the significance of both Donelly and step-sister Kristin Hersh, at one time the poster-women for jagged college rock in Throwing Muses, embarking on solo careers heavily steeped in the folk and country traditions. While similarities exist in their approach, there is a clear divine sweet divide between the paths they each travel. Hersh is steeped heavily in a more Appalachian and folk-oriented style that provides a stark and less pop-oriented narrative (as evidenced on her covers album Murder, Misery and then Goodnight and The Grotto), in comparison to Donelly who takes a much more mainstream Nashville approach along the lines of Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, and a recent Donelly influence, Neko Case. Even though she has abandoned the guitar-centered college radio pop of the northeast, Donelly still brings a hook fit for Ahab back on tracks like “Every Devil”, “The Promise” and “Butterfly Thing” to craft a series of new Nashville radio songs that wouldn’t sound out of place in the background of a scene from the Gilmore Girls or in the cab of a pick-up truck out past the crossroads after dusk.
It’s hard to imagine that the Tanya Donelly we hear on Whiskey Tango Ghosts is the same one who played the choppy guitar leads from the untitled first Throwing Muses album, or played second fiddle to Kim Deal on the Breeders Pod, or miraculously led her group Belly to three Grammy nominations for their debut album Star. But here she is reinventing herself after all of these years and incarnations. With her third solo album Donelly again takes us on not only a new chapter in the voyage of her career, but also in the voyage of her life. If you’ve followed her, even sporadically, over the years or if you are new to her brand of introspective pop step out of your hectic life and take a minute to appreciate Whiskey Tango Ghosts, a startling and pure album that fuses all of the things we love about music into one austere package.