The image of Stella Donnelly, noodles hanging out of her mouth, that adorned the cover of her 2017 debut EP, ‘Thrush Metal’, was the first hint of her forthright outlook that’s become so ingratiating. It was an unbothered look that communicated ‘zero fucks given’. By that point, in her mid-twenties, the Fremantle, Australia, songwriter had seen enough to develop her own ammunition. Her learning had come playing in cover bands around Perth, and then in the rock outfit Bells Rapids.
It wasn’t the right fit for her, so she retreated to her bedroom with a beaten-up acoustic guitar to forge her own way. ‘Thrush Metal’ was the result, and the past 18 months have been about touring (a lot) and learning. The outcome is a debut album that sharpens that promising wit, that broadens those smirks that were so searing on first encounter. As a statement ‘Beware of the Dogs’ is seemingly free of constraint, and therefore, straight from the heart.
Donnelly says she found the creation both liberating and grounding; these are songs songs that are gutsy but skittish. In terms of the overall feel, the whole thing is bulked out, owing to the addition of bassist Jennifer Aslett, drummer Tayla Valenti and guitarist George Foster. Producer Dean Tuza plays his part too, encouraging adventurousness while anchoring the songs in the intimacy intrinsic to Donnelly’s style.
By now you may have heard languid lead single ‘Old Man’, the sarcastic takedown of an old creep with outdated views on what’s okay when it comes to his treatment of women. ‘Your personality traits don’t count if you put your dick in someone’s face,’ sings Donnelly, holding the individual to account. ‘Are you scared of me old man? Or are you scared of what I’ll do? You grabbed me with an open hand/ The world is grabbing back at you.’
That sort of defiance and resolve runs throughout the album. It’s not without humour, though. Next, she’s a stood up by a love interest on a “Tuesday afternoon” and reaches for her vibrator instead on the snarky ‘Mosquito’, reminiscent of Lily Allen at her most cutting.
‘Season’s Greetings’ tears through the exasperation of being compared to others at family gatherings. Eventually the filter’s taken off, the track trailing off with a dismissive ‘fuck up your life, lose all your friends, ok, good, fuck off…’. Generally, with striking observation, she hits on uncomfortable and bittersweet emotions generated from the everyday with a resonance not unlike Billy Bragg.
Breakthrough ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ remains a standout track, having also been included on her earlier EP. Its presence here doesn’t dull the impact of the song, though – a lullaby softly sung and delicately strummed, it is melodically restrained while emotionally barely contained. It rightfully found its moment alongside #metoo with its assessment of how survivors of sexual assault are victim blamed. Like elsewhere, the track is controlled anger hitting all the harder for the playful turns of phrase.
Donnelly doesn’t just do rasping takedowns, though. ‘Allergies’ is a tender love song – and shows vocally that she’s not all quips – the sound of Donnelly’s snotty nose deliberately left in the mix.
The heartbreaking refrain of ‘homesick before I go away’ through the swell of ‘Lunch’ is just one of the moments in which Donnelly surfaces the feelings from being away on tour. With the added strings and the sing-song lines, playfulness again dances around the sadness, the emotions tethered despite a melodic freedom.
A sparse, ringing guitar lift ‘Tricks’ as Donnelly strikes back at the fickle yet demanding industry she finds herself in, while title track ‘Beware of the Dogs’ is full of warm tones and reaching vocals, the percussion strangely echoing in the spaces between guitar lines. On ‘Watching Telly’, meanwhile, there is a homemade ’80s pop sound in the tinny rise and fall melody, and the raw electronic drum.
Building on the promise shown with ‘Thrush Metal’, ‘Beware of the Dogs’ presents Donnelly as an artist confident in her voice and unafraid of serious talk delivered with wit. This is no simpering chanteuse but understated empowerment delivered forthright on an album full of brutal honesty – suburban songwriting which manages to stir the deepest emotions through everyday observations. And musically, it’s deliberately imperfect. Echoes and background noise are all part of the patchwork. Few albums released in 2019 will sound this relevant.
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