On her self-released debut EP, 2017's Thrush Metal, Australian singer/songwriter Stella Donnelly sat alone with just a cheap guitar and her powerful vocals, presenting songs of rage and humor so minimally there was no missing their razor-edged commentary. Lyrics about abusive relationships, misogyny, sexual assault, and other harsh realities cut through tunes that either flitted breezily or scowled with an electricity reminiscent of PJ Harvey's earliest work. For her first proper album, Beware of the Dogs, Donnelly amplifies her sharp and unshakeable lyrical content with enhanced production and fully formed arrangements. The album begins with one of its best songs "Old Man," a light and airy tune juxtaposed with Donnelly's lyrical confrontation of outdated patriarchal norms, sexual harassment, and destructive power imbalances. The sound is light years removed from the dour bedroom rock of Thrush Metal, with layers of bright guitar leads, bouncy drums, and vocal harmonies making the song soar. On "Lunch," a melancholic song about touring, understated string sections, and plinky tandem guitars support Donnelly's precisely controlled vocals, making lines like "I get homesick before I go away" resonate. Much of the album wraps dark themes in a soft shimmer. The title track paints a rich picture of class disparity and political corruption, laying out a story of struggle with catchy melodies that feel far friendlier than the content of the lyrics. "Boys Will Be Boys" is the only song from Thrush Metal to reappear. Stripped down and metered, the song addresses rape and rape culture unobscured by metaphor or allusion, confronting the excuses and apologies made for rapists and sexual abusers head on. Donnelly is a bold lyricist, versatile songwriter, and unfaltering singer, navigating these 13 songs commandingly. The spectrum of moods that ranges from sparse guitar and vocal miniatures to densely arranged nods to chamber pop makes Beware of the Dogs a dynamic debut. Donnelly never wavers in her directness or honesty, but doesn't equate strong statements with volume. Instead, her well-constructed and sometimes weightless songs crush their enemies with a knowing smile and a gentle fist.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas