Beware Of The Dogs (Healthy Tapes)
There’s an old comic strip gag where a man is confronted by a woman holding a dog who appears to be snarling quite viciously. Hey, the woman says, he likes you, he’s wagging his tail. To which the man responds, I don’t know which end to believe.
Something similar could be said of Stella Donnelly by a certain type of man (well positioned, cushioned by his male-supportive environment, arrogant in his assumptions he can get away with his behaviours), or indeed anyone with a penchant for abusing privilege.
Which end to believe with this debut album? The sweet, girlish, seemingly affectless voice some like to think of as innocent – and exploitable, or its lyrics that cut through any bullshit and skewer exactly those men? The pop melodies and fuss-free, lo-fi sounds, or the fuck you, this is how I want to be attitude?
It’s all set out from the opening track, Old Man, which briefly kicks off with a bright mini-riff before it settles into a deceptively desultory rhythm and lazing in the sun vocal. Donnelly describes a former athlete now reading the TV sports news, still with the grabby hands and the sense of entitlement, but she’s not putting up with his shit anymore.
“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, also advising him to let his mates know the same. “Oh are you scared of me old man?/Or are you scared of what I’ll do?”
Lest there be any doubt about the numbered days of silent suffering and deferring to seniors/betters/men, in the gently blowing, Megan Washington-like, waltz-time Boys Will Be Boys – and there’s a title for those reading appalling apologists like Bettina Arndt at home – Donnelly addresses a man who has sexually assaulted her friend.
“Your father told you that you’re innocent, told ya, ‘women rape themselves’,” she says. “Would ya blame your little sister, if she cried to you for help?” And lest he think that’s as much as he’ll get, she ends the song on a warning. “Like a mower in the morning, I will never let you rest/You broke all the bonds she gave ya, time to pay the fucking rent.”
Add to those the Lily Allen light-as-air pop about avoiding the ugly relatives in Seasons Greetings (“You like to intimidate, intimidate … fuck you your life/Lose all your friends”) and the dappled sunlight jangle of Tricks, where a chancer who likes to think of himself as a rebel but has always depended on others to cover/save him (“You want all of us to pull you out of the muck/You’re always wanting a kiss but then you want to get laid”) is nailed with his hypocrisy in a few words (“You only like me when I do my tricks for you/And you wear me out like you wear that southern cross tattoo/You said I’d look much better if I dropped the attitude”) and it is clear receipts have been kept.
Fair or not, songs like these have a telling impact for coming from a voice which might otherwise be assumed too shy to say boo. But the power of those otherwise straightforward lines would make a difference in any form.
Which work just as well in the songs less about bastardry and more about sex, good and bad (Mosquito’s languid drift), making choices about your body (the drifting, bubble electronica of Watching Telly) or just trying to keep your body intact when your mate is set on destroying theirs (the bouncing-on-a-cheap-synth Die).
But what really works, what makes the most difference, is that smart and sharp lyrics aside, Donnelly is not afraid of a tune. While there are a lot of excellent local acts at the moment with wit or zest or rhythms or throwbacks to glory days of, say, The Go-Betweens, melodies are not often their strength.
Not so here. There are melodies aplenty: joyful ones, melancholic ones, sneaky little infiltrator ones, big smack upside the head ones. More than enough to make each spin of the album a little journey of discovery.