Stella Donnelly — Beware of the Dogs ANALYSIS & REVIEW
Donnelly flexes a lot of songwriting strength here in this debut work. The finger-picking guitarist & singer-songwriter aesthetic typically has a limited range of captivation, as it’s how a lot of young naïve musicians without much experience simply start out. Donnelly is young but far from naïve, and she already sounds like a seasoned veteran from the amount of textural variety and harmonic color found on this album.
Melodies range from being simplistically pleasant to outright gorgeous, relying on playful scalar patterns with a wide range of motion to not only grab attention, but to highlight the delightfully youthful tone of the album overall. While Donnelly is undoubtedly a competent guitar player who can channel several different moods from the instrument alone, it was great that she had an equally as competent band around her to fill out the sound as needed. The variety of timbres that surrounded the guitar is an underrated and important facet of this work; not only did the multitude of percussion techniques, synth usage, and bass grooves present different appropriate emotional atmospheres, but it made the moments of stripped-down guitar-only textures all the more special.
The song “Boys Will Be Boys” is one of the best songs of the year, not only for its poignant and unmitigated lyrical message, but for its beautifully delicate and raw guitar-vocal texture. It was a great decision to strip this particular texture down, and also a great decision to know that not every song on the album could sound like that. What “Boys Will Be Boys” also did very well, and was also present at times throughout the whole album, was use IV, V, and secondary dominants at cadential moments to prolong tonic resolution and let a seemingly simple phrase unravel into a fun, unexpected journey. The use of mixed meter, especially in the song “Die”, helped this sense of unraveling as well.
All in all, this album’s strength is using lots of subtle intricacy (melodic leaps, harmonic deception, small timbral additions, etc.) amidst an overall simple foreground (guitar dominant, easy vocal style, themes of modern feminism, etc.) to create a work that’s enjoyable to listen to on multiple levels. Hopefully Donnelly continues to find her true voice through even more timbral flexibility and fearlessness in the future. A very strong debut album, one of the best of the year.