Album Review: Stella Donnelly - Beware of the Dogs
Perth’s Stella Donnelly surfaced a couple of years ago with her EP Thrush Metal, a collection of singing-and-guitar songs that introduced a new voice that was fearless in its honesty about everything she saw and experienced in her life. The most notable of these was the incendiary ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, a song that just about preceded the #MeToo movement, but was pretty much the whole thing wrapped up into 4 startlingly bold minutes of uncensored reportage on “accepted” aggressive male behaviour she saw around her. To hear such a brave statement from a previously unknown voice was undeniably impressive, sending her name around the world in a shock wave that caught the attention of many – including Secretly Canadian who signed her for the re-release of Thrush Metal and her first full-length, Beware of the Dogs.
Now a few years on from those early songs, Stella Donnelly’s Beware of the Dogs sees her having grown musically and emotionally, and attacking various hard-hitting topics, both personal and political, with a more worldly perspective. However - the inclusion of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ aside - the tracks on Beware of the Dogs brim with a character and cheekiness that brings enough levity to ensure unbridled enjoyment while dealing with these angering topics.
It starts with ‘Old Man’, as fun and impudent a mission statement as you’re likely to hear. It finds Donnelly on familiar ground, attacking the patriarchy, but this time she’s not taking the part of the victim but stating her dominance as part of a new generation: “you grab me with an open hand/ this world is grabbing back at you.” It’s the first time we’ve heard her solo material backed by a band, and the effect is to give a confident and infectious bounce to her observations about the dawning of a new era that should have aging perverts cowering in fear. The other song that directly approaches the topic of gender imbalance is ‘Tricks’, an utterly winning breeze through Donnelly’s experiences with men jeering her at open mics, which she dismisses with a simple “leave it alone,” and a laugh-out-loud piss take of people who revel in the idea of getting “laid.”
On both of these tracks we get not only musical delights, but the smile is even broader thanks to Donnelly’s mischievous character, who laughs and simpers perfectly along with her words. This makes us feel we understand our singer more – and thus makes the more serious messages land even harder. Sometimes these are directly political, as on the title track where she observes her country’s inherent racism and disrespect of its natives with ire: “There’s no parliament worthy of this countryside/ All these pious fucks taking from the ninety-nine.” Other times she comes at political topics through her own experiences, most starkly on ‘Watching Telly’, where she glides through an incident in her own life when having to deal with abortion, and attacks Australia’s inconsistent laws on the topic: “I needed someone, they told me I’m wrong/ God loves his children but God loves men, Jesus Christ”; the sarcastic venom in that final line really stinging when you’ve already spent a good deal of time getting to know the delightful Donnelly.
And there is plenty of that utterly heart-winning character to be found on the rest of the album. Whether it’s a simple immature diss like “my mum’s still a punk and you’re still shit” (‘Season’s Greetings’), or the more insidious tale of her former employer “jerking off to the CCTV/ while I’m pouring pints of flat VB” (‘U Owe Me’), you are always unabashedly on the side of the vibrant singer.
In turn, this makes the heartbreak and disappointment songs on the album really strike a nerve, because you hate to hear someone so effervescent be so down. It’s further impactful because she can be just as cutting to herself as she is to others; notably on ‘Mosquito’ she describes herself as a “malaria mosquito” to her love’s “pretty light.” It seems her constant travelling around the world has impacted her relationships, as she examines this topic on a trio of agnoising tracks, ‘Lunch’, ‘Bistro’ and the closing ‘Face It’, each capturing a tangible regret and emotional tearing – especially as she hits her exquisite vibrato.
There is a kind of alchemy in the way that Stella Donnelly manages to tackle a variety of heavy topics without ever letting the weight become overwhelming. She skims through a variety of pop-inflected indie gems that seem to have been perfectly built around her lively outlook, and they come packaged together into a truly whole work of an artist. All this to say, Beware of the Dogs is a wonderful debut album from a luminous young talent.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 8th March 2019.