Sweet Ride: The Best of Belly

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Belly arrived at a strange time for alternative rock. Prior to the early 1993 release of their debut, Star, they had released a series of critically acclaimed U.K. EPs that balanced the shimmering, otherworldly quality of Throwing Muses with an increased sense of songcraft from ex-Muse/Breeder Tanya Donelly -- dream pop that really emphasized the pop, while adding emotional undercurrents that could shift from sweetness to haunting within one song. Star, like the EPs, captured this well, and since it arrived when all things alt-rock had a shot at the charts, they actually had a gold album and a Billboard hit with "Feed the Tree." This led to semistardom -- not nearly as big as Kurt-n-Courtney or Eddie, nor as gossip-worthy as Evan-n-Juliana, but to a lot of appearances at festivals and even the cover of Rolling Stone, which meant that they wanted to broaden their audience and sound with their second album, the Glyn Johns-produced King. Though selected songs were good, the big, glossy production didn't quite fit, but it came to define Belly -- deliberately, too, since they began to remix their British hits for MTV and modern rock radio. This trend continues even after their demise, as Rhino's 2002 collection Sweet Ride: The Best of Belly doesn't necessarily provide a "Best Of" or "Greatest Hits." It collects all of the singles, but not necessarily in their original form -- "Gepetto" is in the remix (which admittedly was the single in the U.S.), a live version of "Dusted," a U.S.-radio mix of "Feed the Tree" -- with a couple of key album tracks and a whole lotta B-sides. Now, the theory behind this is good, since there was a lot of great moments that were only on singles, usually from the Star era. Some of the best have made it here -- a wonderful, slyly sexy version of "Trust in Me" from Disney's The Jungle Book, a cover of "Hot Burrito #1," and, of course, the tremendous title track -- but they're undercut by collector-bait ephemera (OK King B-sides, a French version of a song from King, and a lousy cover of "Are You Experienced?") that give the appearance that this is a cluttered collection. And it is in a sense, since it doesn't know what its audience is -- is it trying to give the casual listeners the hits, the collectors B-sides, or use a little bit of each to draw a definitive portrait of a band that was very, very good at its peak. It does a little of all three, which makes it sadly less than the sum than its parts. Even if it delivers the hits, plus a few nice rarities, it's hard not to wish that it was the compilation that it could have been, one that tipped the scales toward Star instead of King.

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