The Lowdown: Stella Donnelly is a virtual newcomer to the musical scene, but Beware of the Dogs, a glimmering yet no-frills portrait of the political and personal realities and shortcomings of average life, makes one wonder where we ever were without her. She kicks off with an energetic push into the action with “Old Man”, before pulling back into the threads of something a little less pop, a little more indie, which guide the rest of the album. It’s a quick odyssey into a world Donnelly clearly knows well, from the delightfully acerbic family tensions in the lyrics of “Season’s Greetings” to the pinnacled mourning of “Boys Will Be Boys”. Haunting yet real and comprehensive but manageable, Beware of the Dogs is an indie folk wake-up call and a more than apt introduction to this young, fearless expert, who is quickly making herself impossible to overlook.
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The Good: Beware of the Dogs shines in its concrete approaches to meaningful subject matter. Most markedly, Donnelly’s exasperation with the patriarchy bobs to the surface regularly across the album’s 13-track span; even in the moments when it’s not directly articulated, we feel the way that it informs everything, much like in day-to-day life. Anthems like “Old Man” and “Boys Will Be Boys” make it explicit, while in other areas, like “Watching Telly”, it takes on a more sorrowful edge. Donnelly also flexes her talent for pairing relatable imagery with sentiments that are often difficult to describe or characterize, allowing each to enhance and elucidate the other (“You’re jerking off to the CCTV/ While I’m pouring plastic pints of flat VB/ You owe me, you owe me”). This expressiveness reaches its summit with the digging, angry truth of the title track, “Beware of the Dogs”, a visually resonant and foreboding journey through the streets, houses, and countrysides that make up the quiet and dark sides of civilian life.
The Bad: The album feels like a complete and concise emotional journey, navigating fraught conversations, family reunions, and suburban lawns. Sometimes, though, the individual songs feel more like snapshots than complete pictures within themselves. Part of this may be intentional, and it does create an interesting dimensionality to the album in that some songs assist the listener through partial, rather than full, beginning-to-end journeys. There is no strict ending in sight to some of the issues Donnelly spends the album addressing, which perhaps makes the sometime aversion to neatness a fitting approach.
The Verdict: The title of this debut album may be Beware of the Dogs, but make no mistake: The real enemy of the season, at the risk of oversimplifying the message a bit, is men. But Donnelly’s approach, while explicit, is far from heavy-handed or broad-stroked, steering clear of the danger zones of exclusive feminism and man-hating and focusing instead on the crumbling pillars of patriarchy. The album benefits enormously from her sweet voice, driving in its haunting impact on songs like “Allergies”, and her ability to marry playful, soft melodies with grim philosophy and existential anger in songs like “Die”. The carefully composed rock here reminds us that our journeys are our own, regardless of whatever else we tack onto them. No matter how full Donnelly’s hands get with the interpersonal frustrations of day-to-day life and the wounds of the past, the world is still hers for the taking, and she makes it feel like it’s all of ours, too.
Essential Tracks: “Beware of the Dogs”, “Lunch”, and “Season’s Greetings”
Buy: Check out Beware of the Dogs and other Stella Donnelly vinyl here.