Long before such hot, female frontwomen as Hole's Courtney Love and the Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan started wearing the pants in their alternative-rock troupes, stepsisters Tanya Donelly and Kristin Hersh were crafting albums of delicate, surreal beauty as members of Throwing Muses. But frustrated by playing second fiddle to her ethereal, eccentric sis, the more earthbound Donelly left the Muses to form Belly in 1991.
She seemed to justify her departure with Star, Belly's gold '92 debut. Star's breezy attitude, inventive hooks and unexpected modulations injected a blast of fresh air into the increasingly moldy alternative genre. Belly's musical rumblings are similarly adventurous on the follow-up, but with a few exceptions (like the drive-time first single, "Now They'll Sleep," and the unsettling, intoxicating "Untitled and Unsung"), their new songs offer a bunch of great riffs without any real center. And Donelly, who has never been as distinctive a singer as Hersh, sometimes seems to be straining for some upper register that's beyond her grasp.
The Muses—previously more inert than their sister group—fare better with a newly supercharged stance on University, the band's second post-Donelly release. "Bright Yellow Gun" opens the album with a guitar-fueled bang and Hersh's haunting tremolo, making oblique declarations like "With your bright yellow gun/ You own the sun/ And I think I need a little poison." But University's all-out approach begins to wear a bit thin about halfway through. Listeners might find themselves wishing Belly would drop by and add some Star power to the Muses' curriculum. (Both: Sire/Reprise)