The music world is all abuzz about the return of The Breeders to the recording studio, “FEATURING THE LAST SPLASH LINEUP!” They’ve released a new single (“Wait in the Car”) in limited vinyl editions, and to my ears they sound pretty fucking fabulous. I tried to get tickets to their Paris gig on their extremely limited European tour, mais tous vendus! All sold out!
I love Nice but it’s a musical backwater. Paris gets The Breeders; we get Coldplay. Fuck.
I’m always very skeptical when a band from the past attempts to recapture their glory years, but I’m more curious than suspicious when it comes to The Breeders. They were just starting to peak with the release of Last Splash when Kelley Deal was busted for heroin possession, interrupting their trajectory and leaving admirers dreaming of what could have been. The band eventually re-formed with other members, but when they regrouped with the Last Splash lineup to support the release of a 20th anniversary edition, people really started paying attention—The Last Splash lineup has always been the gold standard as far as Breeders fans are concerned. I missed out on the original release (shit, I’d only just turned thirteen), but Last Splash became one of my favorite albums of my pre-college years. I always felt cheated by the deafening silence that followed Last Splash because I felt their catalog had a lot of room to grow. I’d love to see what they can do on a full-length LP (rumored for next year).
I’ve also learned to adopt a dubious posture when revisiting music that came out in the 90’s. It’s embarrassing to admit that most of the music I loved during my teens now sounds dated and faddish—a lot of attitude without the talent or depth to back it up (hello, Gwen Stefani, Courtney Love and Billy Corgan). Being able to brag about the great music that came out during one’s teenage years is one of the relatively few things I envy about The Baby Boomers (along with free love, birth control, civil rights and women’s liberation). While there was a lot of silly shit going on in the 60’s, there was even more great music in multiple genres that still sounds fab fifty years later. Too much of the music produced in the 90’s seems trapped in the amber of the end of the millennium, along with the Y2K non-event and thousands of belly-up dot-coms.
Last Splash is one of the few albums from the 90’s that I can unequivocally endorse. An incredibly diverse record that mixes grunge, power pop, surf, country and experimental, the quality of Last Splash is a testament to Kim Deal’s innate fascination with sound and her willingness to experiment with possibilities that most people would classify as “silly.” “Record a sewing machine?” “Yeah, what the fuck, let’s do it!” “Kelley doesn’t know how to play guitar!” “Well, she can learn.” That curiosity and courage led to the creation of alluring soundscapes and compositions that move way beyond grunge limitations, foreshadowing mid-career Radiohead (another band that began life steeped in grunge). The progressive aspects of Last Splash are delightfully balanced with glimpses of middle class Americana and more than a touch of playful humor. Kim Deal had already proved she was more than the Pixies’ bassist on The Breeders’ first release, Pod (also unequivocally endorsed), and Last Splash demonstrated her continuing development as a painter of sound and mood.
Her clear sense of intention is demonstrated in the short liberation piece, “New Year.” Opening with a simple two-note guitar pattern that feels like a gathering call, the slow and deliberate pace of the first verse, with its message “We have come for light,” seems to reflect the belief that music, through its power to capture thought and emotion that cannot be expressed through words, is a viable path to self-fulfillment. The band shifts to high power right after Kim’s insistence that “It’s true,” chugging along with Josephine Wiggs driving the rhythm with her decisive bass style, establishing a steady pattern frequently punctuated by power chords and Jim McPherson’s intense drum bursts. When Kim sings “I am the sun/I am the new year/I am the rain,” she’s not expressing ego but the feeling of power that emerges when one is immersed in the musical moment. This is why I love making noise with a distorted guitar on my piece-of-shit amp—I feel like the supreme goddess, producing wave after wave of raw power that emanates not from my hands but from my soul. Following the band’s demonstration of the thrill inherent in musical liberation, Kim quietly reaffirms that “It’s true” in her parting words, confirming in language what we intuited during that passage of unrestrained power.
Like fellow Daytonian Robert Pollard, Kim’s lyrics often tend towards the absurdist-obscurist school of poetry, though I don’t think she’s as impenetrable as some MALE critics depict her. A good example of her lyrical approach can be found in “Cannonball,” probably the song from Last Splash most familiar to the general public. The word has two complementary meanings—one is the explosive device and the other is the explosive form of diving involving bundling oneself into a tight ball before plummeting into the pool with a humongous splash that soaks everyone within 50 feet of the point of impact. Kim uses both meanings as a metaphor for explosive male energy—the destructive form used in the male sport of war and the annoying form we see in the male sport of showing off one’s masculine power and acting like a total asshole. Kim expresses what many women experience when faced with this often undisciplined power—desire (the repetition of “want you”) and danger (the repetition of “cuckoo” or “koo-koo,” a synonym for “volatile”). So, yeah, she wants to be the “bong in this reggae song” and stimulate the male sex drive, but knowing the danger, she wants to cool him off a little and find a more intimate, private mating spot (the repetition of “in the shade”). The musical support for those lyrics is fantastic, integrating fascination (the question mark expressed in the sinuous slide guitar riff) with the sense of alarm (the opening repetition of ahh-OOH) and the expression of the carnal urge (the shift to vocal distortion and all-out bash). The vocals are outstanding, with the call-and-response mirroring the inner dialogue we have with ourselves when we’re uncertain about taking the plunge with our latest object of desire. Those vocals also display the rare but fortuitous magic of twin sisters engaged in harmony, an experience deeply pleasing to the ears.
The flightiness of the male half of the species is highlighted in “Invisible Man,” featuring a dampened background of distortion, bass and synthesizer that, when mixed with Kim’s soft, husky voice, gives the song a cocoon-like feel. Thematically one of the lovelier songs on the album, the low-key melodic line and chord pattern invite a series of lovely synth and guitar fills that intensify the feeling of emptiness as you “count the bubbles in your hand.” I love how they add the sounds of a wind chime on the fade, indicating that yet another unreliable male has vanished into the wind to sow his sticky oats.
“No Aloha” is a disarming anthem to female independence from marriage and motherhood. Opening with Kim’s heavily-reverbed voice sounding like a spirit disconnected from her body, she’s soon supported by a lo-fi, heavily-reverbed slide guitar and stiff rhythm guitar that come together to create the sound of an amateur band gigging in a Honolulu tourist trap. The highlight of the song comes early, when Kim makes her own statement of liberation: “Motherhood means mental freeze.” A pretty strong statement indeed, but when you reluctantly unpack the condensed poetic message, what she’s really testifying to is the reality of a woman in a world of limited choices. The primary expectation heaped upon the vast majority of young women is motherhood, and motherhood usually involves serving as the weaker economic power in a relationship and facing a disrupted career/life path. “Oh, great, I get to stay home trying to have conversations with fucking two year-olds who need hours of attention and make a fucking mess of everything so I can wind up exhausted by nine o’clock.” No. Fucking. Thanks. While there are some women who do manage to conquer many of the obstacles that mothers face, and while there are many countries outside the USA do a much better job of supporting professional mothers, there are many women whose psyches cannot bear the thought of the oppressive responsibilities of motherhood.
It’s just not in every woman’s DNA, so leave us the fuck alone.
The second, loud section repeats the first verse, the lyrics now backed with firm intention, reflecting the confidence-nourishing tonic of independent choice. Kelley’s lead fills are outstanding, but what really jumps out at you here are Josephine Wiggs’ bass runs, capturing theme and forward movement with delightful assertiveness.
“Roi” is a fascinating instrumental mood piece that opens with Josephine’s bass mirroring the declining note pattern of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” without the quadruplet picking and the closing note. The bass is soon surrounded by stereo distortion leading to a rising chord pattern that ends in a stop-time shift of thrilling, dissonant power chords. Kim then enters with the song’s single line: “Raw: where the shot leaves me gagging for the arrow.” After an extended, quieter passage filled with feedback and complementary sound, the bass pattern appears again to lead to a heavier passage linked thematically by that falling note pattern and the return of the dissonant chord set, unifying the composition. A piece that evokes a strange disquiet in the listener, “Roi” has no discernible connection to the French word for “king,” but to the near-homophone raw, as in raw emotion.
The Breeders oscillate between sexy, sweet and heavy on “Do You Love Me Now?” a song co-written by the twins about the lingering feelings many people experience for former partners. I’ve experienced it as the victim of a hanger-on, but never as the one wishin’ and hopin’. Once I sense that there is a disconnection in compatibility or trust, I end it—politely, honestly and firmly. While that has earned me something of a reputation as a cold bitch with former lovers, I’d rather live with that than hanging onto a relationship that’s turning sour. Kim obviously felt differently, going to the extreme of demanding the partner’s return (“C’mon c’mon come back to me right now!). It makes for a great dramatic moment, but I still have a hard time relating to that feeling. Even with my temporary abandonment of emotional intelligence, I still love the song, especially the parts that move forward in slow drive and the choral background voices on the fade.
The song on Last Splash that makes me the happiest is the instrumental “Flipside,” an under-two-minute surf explosion featuring Kelley Deal as Dick Dale and Josephine Wiggs as Nokie Edwards. Kim and Jim keep the rhythms hot, making it impossible for this girl not want to leap up out of her seat and shake her fanny like a high-speed blender. It’s also a great lead-in to the surf-punk sounds of “I Just Wanna Get Along,” a song that many believe is Kim’s big fuck you to Black Francis and Joey Santiago for rejecting her compositions as “half-songs” and “not Pixies.” Perhaps. The Prodigy just thought “I Just Wanna Get Along” was a great dance song that fit into their electronic beat paradigm. I hear the song as an indictment of male ego and couldn’t care less if that male ego belongs to Frank Black. Kudos to Kelley for her attitude-laden lead vocal and co-writing contribution.
In “Mad Lucas,” Kim paints a tone poem about a real historical figure, one James Lucas, the Hermit of Hertfordshire, labeled an “eccentric” in those pre-Freudian days of complete ignorance of mental illness. Apparently Lucas was a well-educated regular guy whose internal wiring malfunctioned after his mother’s death. After waiting three months to bury her (I hope it was winter), he locked himself in his mansion for the rest of his days and allowed no one to touch anything in the house. Without housekeeping, the place became quite a mess, but since Lucas slept naked in an ash heap, he hardly noticed. He did notice that the rats liked the place and hung his food in baskets to protect it. He allowed visitors to speak to him only through an iron grille, which was nice of him, since he didn’t bathe or cut his hair for twenty-five years and wore only an ash-soaked blanket. It is said that seventeen cartloads of dirt were removed from his house after he finally succumbed to apoplexy.
In the song, Kim actually attempts to straighten the guy out, but instead of wasting her time with therapy, says exactly what I . . . well, she took the words right out of my mouth:
Arise, wash your face
From cinder and soot
You’re a nuisance
And I don’t like dirt
The distorted voice, curious sounds and deliberately slow pace reminds me of a couple of songs from the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, sans the computerized electronics. The music feels deliberately cramped, as if dampened by the caked dust and soot of the madman’s abode. Occasional grating sounds intensify the disconnection from the normal flow of life and the feeling of living in a rusting, rotting residence. Some find “Mad Lucas” strange; personally, I think it’s a brilliant mood piece.
Search all you want through your record collection and you will find few albums that contain back-to-back tracks with greater contrast than that between “Mad Lucas” and “Divine Hammer.” It’s like waking up from a nightmare where you spent twenty-five years in solitary to find yourself suddenly surrounded by bright sunshine, bluebirds and beds of vividly-colored flowers. However, don’t let the power pop cheer of “Divine Hammer” lead you to believe that the song lacks substance. The song is about the frequently disappointing search for something to believe in, allowing those in the know to steer you to organized religion, where you find nothing but air as you squirm in your Sunday school seat:
I’m just looking for a faith
Waiting to be followed
It disappears this near
You’re the rod, I’m water
I’m just looking for one divine hammer
The twins’ lovely harmonizing tends to grab most of your attention, but the rhythm section of MacPerson and Wiggs deserves credit for filling the song with copious amounts of rock energy.
A sewing machine and amped up secret-agent music make for a surprisingly engaging listening experience, as we learn in our second short instrumental interlude, “S. O. S.” I like these little breaks in Last Splash—they’re like an aural version of cleansing one’s palate. This particular break leads us to “Hag,” a song I’ve always interpreted through the long-standing female habit of paying obsessive attention to our appearance, every waking hour. After an energetic night of partying, fucking or whatever girls do to release the repressed energy that has accumulated during the work week, we hit the clubs and party circuits to project our beauty, flash our smiles and do our best to transform the vibes into pure conviviality with our native charm. Then, when the bars close or the passion is spent, we women collapse, pass out or fall into a sweet sleep in a lover’s arms. And the first fucking thing we do when we wake up and drag ourselves to the head for the morning pee, is stop in look in a mirror. “Hag!” we groan as we look at our smushed faces, flaked and smeared make up and ratty hair:
All night, all night, all night
Under the stars, under their light
All over the girl only looks bright
Like a woman
You’re just like a woman
You’re on again
I then forget about my urgent need to pee and do something about that ugly face and rat’s nest of a hairdo. It’s hard to escape the effects of mass cultural programming.
We’ll leave my first-world problems for another day and . . . head for the fair! If you visit the United States in the summer months, you’ll find gazillions of fairs of all types popping up all over the landscape, including state, county, food-related, church-sponsored, ethnic, Renaissance—the variations are endless. “Saints” captures the essence of the fair experience, whatever the genre. The gritty music with its attitude-drenched vocal reflects the sex-trolling aspect of a stroll through the crowds and the unsentimental attitudes of the carnies in relation to all the fun that surrounds them. Kim uses the lyrics to paint the feel, touch, smell and taste of the event:
I like all the different people
I like sticky everywhere
Look around, you bet I’ll be there!
Hot metal in the sun
Pony in the air
Sooey and saints at the fair
“Sticky everywhere” is a phrase I relate to immediately, because when I think “fair,” my memory fills my nostrils with the scent of cotton candy, toffee apples and caramel corn. It’s not a pleasant memory (I’m not big on sweets, so I go for the corn dogs) but a vivid one, and I would imagine that for an Ohio girl like Kim, “sticky” also describes the humid summer weather of the Midwest. “Saints” rocks with a certain swagger, and passes the Sartrean existential validity test with flying colors.
Now we begin to lope to the finish line with a song from a band that hardly anyone knew existed until The Breeders covered this song. The band went by the name Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, whom AllMusic described as “A quirky folk group who defy an easy placement in genre.”
I’m going to have to check out Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. “Quirky” often means there’s something interesting there that the music industry can’t process.
The song in question, “Drivin’ on 9,” was co-written by ERQ’s co-founder Dom Leone, who died of cancer in the band’s early days. The Breeders got wind of it through ERQ band member Carrie Bradley, who provides violin accompaniment here. A song with clear country and bluegrass connections doesn’t sound like something that would land anywhere near The Breeders’ sweet spot, but Kim plays the role of white trash girl living and longing near the highway as if she’d been singing country all her life (a statement with some truth to it, as one of the first songs she learned on guitar in her pre-teen years was Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”). The band provides solid support, and the decision to ask Carrie Bradley to play the fiddle sealed the deal. While sometimes you laugh at the girl’s predicament, in the end you feel sympathy for the girl and sadness about the hand she’s been dealt—abandoned by a lover and stuck with a daddy who’s unwilling to save the day with a shotgun wedding.
Last Splash ends with a brief reprise of “Roi” and the repetition single line, “Raw: where the shot leaves me gagging for the arrow.” I’m not particularly thrilled about the reprise, as the song follows several pieces that are as far away from “Roi” as you can imagine, so its reappearance seems out-of-the-blue. I think ending Last Splash with “Driving on 9” would have been a much more effective sendoff.
Last Splash is a great album by a group of musicians who absolutely clicked in studio and on stage. While I’m looking forward to the new studio effort, I’m going to make every effort to rid myself of any expectations that the new album will be as good or will even sound like Last Splash. Almost twenty-five years have passed since its release, and over a span of twenty-five years, people change and sometimes even grow. Whatever The Breeders come out with should be considered on its own merits in the context of the 21st century—and even if the new album turns out to be a less-than-satisfying experience, nothing The Breeders do now or in the future will diminish what they accomplished in Last Splash.