David Wingo, the man behind Ola Podrida, has clearly learned a thing or two from his past, back when he used to score films for his pal David Gordon Green. Slipping in the subtle evocative sound, establishing a sonic landscape, expanding out into swells of emotion or coiling into near silence — Belly of the Lion gives us Wingo in complete control of all these effective moves. He’s built on the hushed tension of the first, mostly acoustic, Ola Podrida record, and built it up into an affecting rock record.
These are songs meant to soak in and spread, like deep red stains. Wingo places crashing cymbals and restrained drumming off in the distance, leaving space for a thick bed of guitars to coat everything in haze. And while there’s surely some shoegaze influence to those layers, the record doesn’t constantly rely on grinding feedback for effect. “Your Father’s Basement” pits acoustic chords against faint, echoed riffs. “The Closest We Will Ever Be” is built on clear, twangy strings of notes that needle through restrained, overcast distortion. “Donkey”, perhaps the best song of the bunch, starts with just banjo and Wingo’s whispery vocals. But as he becomes trapped and penned in, and he begins to shout “In the belly of the lion, I’ve been trying to breath through his nose,” an organic, buzzing hum swells up behind him, driving home the claustrophobia while Wingo is reduced to wordless shouts.
All through the record, Wingo succeeds at creating these affecting, gauzy rooms of sound. These are songs that are shimmering but never precious, beautiful but not immaculate. The people Wingo sings about, whether himself or those around him, are fighting tooth and nail for some kind of love, sometimes merely physical, but always necessary. That momentum, the hard wanting they go through, makes these songs sound tacky with sweat and, particularly in the first half, wild-eyed and yearning, even at their most bittersweet and quiet, as on “We All Radiant.”
And while this sound carries the album, the commitment to that overall feel takes something away from the songs themselves. After the crescendo of “Donkey”, the album settles into a quiet buzz. There’s still the same warm haze working, but the songs slow down, and that irrepressible energy suddenly feels sapped. “Monday Morning” glides along quietly until grinding notes pull it apart. “Lakes of Wine” sounds like an updated, and yes improved, track from his solo record. It’s bedroom folk, but there’s yawning keys that give it much needed atmosphere. So while these kinds of songs work on their own, once they start to follow each other, the album loses the momentum it worked so hard to earn. Even when “Roomful of Sparrows”, with its towering guitar attack, tries to recapture the grit and sweat of the first half of the record, it can’t quite pull that off on its own.
Still, this whole discussion of the overall movement of the record isn’t all critical. Belly of the Lion is, front to back, a compelling sound. It’s a true testament to Wingo’s musicianship that this record sounds like it was recorded by a full, heavily populated band, when in fact he recorded it mostly alone. So there’s a lot to be said for what he’s accomplished here, but it does feel like the sequencing here, that soundtrack penchant of his, may have gotten in the way of making this record better than it is already. There are nine distinct, quite beautiful tracks on this record. But a few of them end up getting lost in this murky landscape, and in those moments the expansion of the record inverts itself into a slight limitation.