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Tanya Donelly
Whiskey Tango Ghosts

Tanya Donelly’s little-girl lilt, now delivering grown-up songs full of heartache and apparitions, carries with it ghosts of the early '90s, when girls like her stampeded indie rock's male-centric circles, decked out in baby-doll dresses and plastic barrettes, and belting out big, biting songs in little voices. Donelly, once a member of Throwing Muses, was never as angry as a lot of the other grrrls, which may be partly why she's still writing and selling music instead of getting tangled up in court or rehab. She's stayed home and gotten tangled up with ghosts.

On Whiskey Tango Ghosts, her new solo CD, she lets her voice take center stage. The disc has more hush and fewer hooks than her two previous solo albums, 1999's Lovesongs for Underdogs and 2002's Beautysleep. Donelly has always had a fetching voice; it lured fans to her earlier efforts, both solo and with Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly. Even when she wasn't the lead vocalist, her voice beckoned from the background, sounding both innocent and wry.

In her new life, Donelly has a child and a husband. With Whiskey Tango Ghosts, she dissects this domesticity, laying bare the confusion and certainty, the honesty and hypocrisy and the anger and glee that drive a relationship, especially one with children. But hers has the added complications of ghosts and devils lurking around. Almost every song mentions some apparition, from the shadows on the walls in the first track, "Divine Sweet Divide," to the psycho only she can see in the second-to-last track.

The disc opens with "I have lost something/ On the way/ And I can't explain." With only piano accompanying her voice, you know right away this isn't the Tanya Donelly we remember from Belly's million-plus selling 1993 debut, Star, or even from her last solo release, Beautysleep. She's shed her stylish hooks and accessorizing back-up voices, as well as some of her youth. It's like when your drinking buddy or your coworker all of a sudden wants to talk about something real. You have to decide if you're in or out, if the relationship is one you want to further.

"Every Devil" introduces listeners to the two forces at work in Donelly's life. The devils in her house want to have it out. The one by the head of her bed hisses at her, so she hisses right back. It's an image all too familiar in family life, where devils occasionally move through each of us, and at really ugly moments, through everyone at once. But the ugliness is only passing. The more I listen to the song, the more I think it's one of the most honest and sweet love songs I've heard in a long time. The piano and guitar have a mellow country twinge, with enough of a beat for a front-porch waltz. As Donelly battles these demons and their desire for a fight, she knows safety is within reach. She sings: "I can reach for you/ Not in song but with real arms warm/ And not be turned away/ I can turn and turn and I can turn/ And be still facing the wrong way/ But you grab me by the belt and spin me/ You spin me, and we're dancing again."

A steel guitar adds warmth to "Just in Case You Quit Me." Donelly’s voice also hits some of its lowest notes on this song, especially in the opening line, "There I said it, I've done you wrong." She’s confessing, but with a mix of anger and resignation. The weeping-cowboy sound of the steel guitar is used sparingly, alongside confessional lines like the one above and this one: "I'm unspeakably full of it."

Often, Donelly's lyrics are as shrouded as the ghosts and spirits floating through her house. "My Life as a Ghost" is, according to Donelly, about being a mother. If she's saying motherhood can make one feel invisible like a ghost, that's within easy grasp. But what's this about "lifting the stains out of the stones, planting flowers where you'll never find my bones?" Her words are full of haunting images, juxtaposed with heartwarming ones. Ultimately, she's happy in her life as a ghost, ready to lay her shield on the ground.

Donelly shows a grace on this disc that a lot of people her age aren't capable of. Instead of trying to maintain the place she had in the spotlight a decade ago, instead of hiring a hotshot DJ to help her reach a new audience, she's chronicled the bliss, the anger and the fear that make up her life as an adult. Without irony or self-pity. Those of us who've traded our baby-doll dresses and Doc Martens boots and combed out our matted hair — maybe even had a little girl of our own who now struts around in short dresses, black boots and matted hair — have a new soundtrack. Depending on the day, we can feel thankful for or scared of where we are. Donelly leaves room for both.

by Lori Miller Barrett

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