As I pondered how I might approach this review, I reflected on my deep feeling of admiration for Angélique Kidjo and wondered how I might communicate that respect in a way readers could understand. So I decided to come up with a most-admired list.
Since a true list of the people I most admire would include people neither famous nor rich, I won’t share the whole list with you. I find it difficult to admire public figures because you never know if you’re dealing with an image or a living, breathing human being, so I’m afraid my most-admired list is both short and unimpressive. I’m including people who have passed into the Great Beyond, so I guess I’m cheating. I’m also cheating by making this an international list, as the majority of these lists are country-specific. And because I refuse to divide my list by gender, an arbitrary, sexist division I find deeply offensive . . . I suppose I’m cheating there, too.
So here’s my list of my most admired people. I’m cheating again because I refuse to rank them from most-admired to least-most admired AND I couldn’t come up with the magic number of ten! Okay! I’ll admit it! I’m a fucking cheater! Let Robert Mueller try to extradite me! The extradition treaty between France and the United States specifically prohibits the extradition of French citizens! I’ll tie him up in the arcane procedures of the French court system so long he’ll say the hell with it and do something more productive, like putting Trump & Co. behind bars where they belong instead of picking on a helpless French refugee!
Uh, where was I? Oh yes, the list:
- Bob Gibson
- Françoise Hardy
- Catherine Deneuve
- Louis Armstrong
- Angélique Kidjo
- Joan Miró
- John Mayall
- Albert Camus
- Joe Strummer
Since you don’t have time to do it and you probably wish I’d get the fuck on with the review, let me quickly extrapolate the qualities I considered when compiling this list. Clarity of purpose. Class. Performance. Commitment. Willingness to take risks and defy convention. Courage. Artistic integrity. Citizens of the world.
Angélique Kidjo embodies all those qualities. When I made the decision to escape the gun-ridden, increasingly dysfunctional world of the United States, I relied on her example to help me get through the transition. Of course, her escape from a communist dictatorship in Benin was much more challenging and dramatic than my intra-company transfer, and when she arrived in Paris she faced far more obstacles as an African woman than I did as a fair-skinned blonde. I also had the advantage of having visited France regularly for years, while her move to Paris was her first trip. She brought with her an idealized, romanticized version of France expressed in the tripartite model of liberté, égalité, fraternité, only to find that not all Parisians of the 20th century had shed themselves of the cold, dismissive racist attitude of superiority embodied in their colonist ancestors. She spent much of her first few years in France hungry, cold and ignored—but never defeated.
She conquered all obstacles with an indomitable will, a firm belief in the dignity and rights that should be afforded to all human beings regardless of color or gender and an exceptionally compelling voice. Her autobiography expresses her essence in its title: La voix est le miroir de l’me—“the voice is the mirror of the soul.” The title was dumbed down for American audiences to Spirit Rising, but her life story is compelling in any language. Angélique Kidjo is the ultimate example of how a person who began life with no power and no connections can blast through the walls of privilege and have a significant impact in the world—as a goodwill ambassador with UNICEF, as the recipient of the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International, and, above all, though her endlessly compelling, exciting music. Drawing influence from multiple genres and from multiple cultures, Angélique Kidjo embodies human diversity while clearly demonstrating its virtues.
Oremi (“Friends”) was her seventh studio album (you’ll see it described as her fifth elsewhere, as some sites choose to ignore her pre-Island work). It is the first part of a thematic trilogy exploring the African roots of American music (and by “American” we don’t mean the exclusive use of that adjective by the citizens who are under the fantasy that they live in the greatest fucking country in the world, but all Americans, North, South and Central). Oremi focuses on the intersections between African and African-American music, so the general gestalt reflects values from funk and soul with a sprinkling of jazz. Since most American music outside of the indigenous variety is derived from or has been heavily influenced by African music, this allowed her a wide range of possibilities that delightfully fill all three albums: Oremi, Black Ivory Soul (South American emphasis, heavy on the Brazilian-African connection) and Oyaya! (Caribbean intersections). One of her qualifications to take on this daunting task is her multi-lingualism, capable of singing in Fon (one of the Beninese languages), French, English and Yorùbá, giving her the unique ability to integrate different forms of vocalization and diverse singing styles in a completely natural manner. On Oremi, she applies that formidable talent to the styles of music she sang and danced to as a kid—the Afro-pop and world music stylings of Miriam Makeba as well as the imported American music of the late 60’s and early 70’s: The Jackson Five, James Brown, The Temptations and . . . Jimi Hendrix.
After a suitably enthusiastic introduction that also establishes the basic groove largely through the human voice, the exploration of the African-American connection begins with a cover of the Hendrix classic from Electric Ladyland, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The challenges facing any artist who covers a classic is how to make it their own while respecting the essence of the original. As Angélique recalls in Spirit Rising, this took some time:
From the moment I decided I would cover it, the song was always in my head. Since I couldn’t very well ask any musician to compete with Hendrix’s virtuosity, I had to find something to sing in place of the guitar riff. Until I figured out that piece, I wouldn’t record it. It took years of that song floating around in my head until one day I woke up and said, “Jean, here it is.” I replaced Jimi’s guitar riffs with Beninese chanting, and then we slowed down the tempo to make it more hypnotic and haunting.
Amon Min keledje
Vodoo vi amon
Amon min keledje
(You think I’m worthless
but you’re looking at
Kidjo, Angelique; Wenrick, Rachel. Spirit Rising (Enhanced Edition): My Life, My Music (Kindle Locations 1853-1863). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Using the chant to establish the rhythm was an inspired choice, in sync with Angélique’s oft-repeated insistence that Beninese music is all about the rhythm. Even after the bass and drums relieve her of some of that responsibility, the chant still appears in the fills, reflecting another crucial aspect of Beninese music: the rhythm exists to inspire the dancing and the singing, all combining to create a completely holistic musical experience. You feel the urge to move as soon as you hear the first pass of the chant, and as the rhythm is reinforced on multiple levels, your movement requires no thought or effort—you simply have to wiggle, shake and move your feet.
But as you are moving through the first verse, you’re also treated to variations of Angélique Kidjo’s show-stopping voice thanks to superb engineering that layers her multi-faceted vocals as if she were a one-person quartet. While the chant continues in the fills, she sings melody of the first verse in a “soft soul” style, deep and breathy. She amplifies that style with a more powerful octave leap layered over the softer lead vocal on the first repetition of the opening lines. Another repetition of the chant leads us into the chorus, where we simultaneously hear Angélique vocalizing near the top of her register (ah-ha-ha) while harmonizing during the underlying rendition of the chorus. The layering of her voice is wonderful but the experience of having her voice come at you from all sides also adds to the magic and mystery of the moment. The deliberate arrangement is also intended to inspire Western listeners who consider voodoo is a form of evil sorcery to explore its origins as a natural religion:
Every time you talk about voodoo, the conversation goes to a dark place. With this song, I was trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Vodun, the rich animist culture I’d grown up with.
Kidjo, Angelique; Wenrick, Rachel. Spirit Rising (Enhanced Edition): My Life, My Music (Kindle Locations 1866-1867). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Angélique’s version of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is one of those covers that surpassed the original—a totally engaging experience on every level of music appreciation.
The soft jazz stylings of “Never Know” allow Angélique to mingle her softer voice with a diverse group of background vocalists, with male and female African singers providing the spice and Cassandra Wilson providing the scat. All the vocalists seem to float over the background beat, spontaneously responding to the rhythms, creating a naturally soothing and engaging soundscape. As is true with many of her songs, “Never Know” was composed Angélique and her husband, Jean Hébrail (additional credit on this one goes to R. Nevil). The bilingual lyrics talk about the struggle between needs and wants, between inner peace and endless tension, the desire to flee from self-reflection and look outside for solutions:
What you want
Is not always what you need
Except right in front of me
Or private war
Lose the key
Just when you find the door
“Babalao” features Angélique’s more powerful voice, along with some fabulous male background singers who sing at the lowest reaches of the human voice over the strong, funky beat. As a deep-voice whore, I find the song intensely sexy, and my nearly-complete ignorance of African languages (except for a few basic phrases of Jula I learned in Côte d’Ivoire) allow me to ignore the storyline, a tribute to the therapeutic role of the Yoruba priest in many African and African-colonized societies. For me, “Babalao” is a dance song with an irresistible groove that could brighten the mood at any late night dance club.
My absolute number one favorite song on Oremi inspires a different kind of dance—one where I can imagine myself in a knee-length muslin skirt, twirling to the rhythm on an isolated beach on a bright, sunny day. Though I do not understand the lyrics, Angélique’s summary of their essence happens to reflect one of my most deeply-held values:
“Loloyé” is a love song that I wrote based on one of my father’s sayings. When my mother began to do theater in Benin, she was traveling alone with her group a lot. A woman came to see my father and said, “Really now, Franck, how can you let your wife go so far away by herself? Aren’t you afraid she’ll cheat on you?” My father told her, “Love should never be a prison. When you love someone, you’ve got to let them be free.”
Kidjo, Angelique; Wenrick, Rachel. Spirit Rising (Enhanced Edition): My Life, My Music (Kindle Locations 1886-1889). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Angélique sings this composition in her prettiest, clearest voice, and when that voice mingles the whispery timbre of the background vocalists and the gently-flowing 6/8 beat, the effect is sweet and gently liberating. As the song moves toward the conclusion, the voices come together to form a chorus and a stirring build. Towards the end of the build, though, we hear a child’s voice join in on the chorus (“Eé éi yo lolo yé, Ea bolo iyo lolo yé). This is Naïma, Angélique’s daughter, named after Coltrane’s famous tribute to his wife on Giant Steps:
After we wrote the song, we did a demo version, then we took a break to have lunch. All of the sudden we realized our four-year-old girl wasn’t with us. We called her name, but she didn’t answer. She was lying on the bed listening to the song with headphones on, so she hadn’t heard us calling her. She was looking at my lyrics, even though she couldn’t read yet. I said, “What are you doing? We’ve been looking for you all over the place.”
She said, “I really love this song, Mama. I have to sing it with you!” When we were recording in New York a few months later, our little daughter asks, “So, when do I get to sing the song?” She hadn’t forgotten. They had to give her a high stool to get her mouth near the microphone. But after they did, in a matter of seconds, she quickly changed into a diva. I’ll never forget it. She says to us, “Could you please lower the light a little? I can only sing when the light is dim.” You can hear her little voice, so sweet and tender, in the song’s final refrain.
Kidjo, Angelique; Wenrick, Rachel. Spirit Rising (Enhanced Edition): My Life, My Music (Kindle Locations 1897-1902). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Naima was too young to hit the notes perfectly, but the joy and genuine feeling in her voice is irresistibly charming.
We shift from sweet and enchanting to high heat with “Itche Koutche,” a high-powered funk number the couple co-wrote with Branford Marsalis, who also provides a smooth-and-steamy soprano sax solo that he nailed in fifteen minutes. Man, if your body doesn’t feel like dancing to this sucker, check your ancestry because you’re probably related to Mike Pence! Angélique powers through this piece with hearty growls and heartfelt exclamations that inspire you to shake your ass until it’s ready to fall off.
Oremi continues to provide contrast with the passionate plea for love and understanding called “Open Your Eyes.” Performed over a soft funk beat, Angélique shares the lead vocal with fellow Grammy nominee Kelly Price, both singers delivering stirring performances urging the human race to “remove the blinders, so we can see.” The cynic of today, looking at the growing divisiveness in the world would probably dismiss the song as one likely to fall on the deaf ears of the selfish and stupid, but to me it’s a reminder that even though respect for human rights should be obvious to anyone with a brain and soul, we still have a long way to go to build trust among the various communities that make up human civilization. Great song, even greater message: we can’t stop trying.
“Yaki, Yaki” begins with a deep male voice (sigh!) voicing short syllables of laughter, soon echoed in a brief snickering response from Angélique. According to the liner notes, the song’s message is “Never let anybody decide what’s good for you/Stand for yourself!” Damn straight, sister! This is a lesson that Angélique has taken to heart throughout her life, as recounted in various stories in Spirit Rising. The song itself is a choral delight, with spirited voices coming from all angles, merging together beautifully in the chorus.
“Give It Up” is a late-night funk piece encouraging self-help in the form of “You have to talk/express your pain/so I can help you.” It’s amazing how many of us roll up into a tiny ball when faced with problems, avoiding all the people in our lives who have experienced similar problems and are willing to help. The layered voices here are used with great effect, mirroring the insistence one needs to break through a frightened human being’s false shield of invulnerability. The title track, which follows, looks at the problem from the opposite end of the spectrum, as expressed in the explanatory liner notes: “I’m searching for a friend/That could be like a brother for me/Those kind of friends seem rare today.” Angélique isn’t being duplicitous, she’s being truthful: we have moods of hope and despair, times when we’re inspired to help and times when we just want to say fuck the human race. The expression of the need for friendship in “Oremi” is deeply powerful, a frank admission of the vulnerability that is exposed when we finally do reach out to someone. I think pairing these two songs illustrates Angélique’s empathetic understanding of a fundamental human problem: we can all use a friend but develop too many protections that get in the way of friendship.
The antidote is to not give up, as it is the sad fortune of the human race to make it as difficult as possible to achieve what we truly want. “Orubaba” provides that antidote with the message, “At night, you can dream, think and grow/Don’t be afraid of it.” The music here is upbeat and optimistic, and I believe this song’s message of daring to dream is targeted at the women in the listening audience, who too often give up their dreams in the face of an onslaught of societal expectations.
“No Worry” continues the emerging theme of battling despair with hope. As Angélique notes in Spirit Rising, the song is about “how you can overcome sorrow, loneliness, and despair. You need to accept them as a way of life because sorrow goes hand in hand with joy, just as life goes hand in hand with death. It is like this for all of us. You also can’t know love if you haven’t known sorrow.” Here the rhythm takes a back seat to a lovely acoustic guitar and sweet-tempered background and call-and-response vocals. One of the more purely beautiful songs on Oremi, “No Worry” provides a gentle lead-in to the closing piece, “We Are One,” a piece many people know through The Lion King II.
Many artists and philosophers have expressed the message of human unity but I don’t know of any who expresses it with the conviction of Angélique Kidjo. Using her excellent interpretive ability (she did not write the song) and exceptional command of vocal dynamics in a performance that covers the dynamic range from gently modest to passionate intensity, Angélique delivers the message of unity in a deeply inspiring fashion:
As you go through life you’ll see
There is so much that we don’t understand
And the only thing we know
Is things don’t always go the way we planned
But you’ll see every day
That we’ll never turn away
When it seems all your dreams have come undone
We will stand by your side
Filled with hope and filled with pride
We are more than we are, we are one
The vocal mix of Western pop stylings with African spontaneity is truly thrilling, reminding us again of the astonishing value of human diversity. “We Are One” is a moving tribute to human possibility, an optimistic, forward-looking anthem of deeply-stirring beauty.
Sigh. Here I am listening to this beautiful music by this courageous and talented woman whose remarkable life completely denies the validity of racism and sexism, still feeling the underlying tension that many people all over the world feel day-in and day-out because of the sick, racist, hateful and divisive energy emanating from the United States. Moving to France gave me some breathing space, but the USA is the perpetual elephant in the room, making life feel lousy for everyone on the planet, no matter where they live. I will say that listening to Oremi reminded me that there are still good people in the world who don’t want to destroy the planet, who don’t hate people for their differences and who have no desire to infect the human race with their sick, twisted take on life. There are still people working on the quest for greater human understanding. I’ll close this review with a passage from Spirit Rising where Angélique talks about her motivation for launching the trilogy, as it confirms two fundamental truths: that people have the power to act in the name of increased human cooperation; and that multiculturalism is the greatest source of learning and understanding known to humanity:
Africa is often regarded as being superfluous, a continent of savages—not part of the modern “enlightened world.” I’ve always wanted to recreate that lost link with the diaspora to prove that my continent has made immense contributions to contemporary culture. In the late nineties, as I began thinking about what I wanted my next recordings to be, I kept coming back to how the music of slaves transcends borders. I thought that if people understood this, they would understand Africa differently. After focusing the last album on the rhythms of my homeland, it seemed the natural next step was to trace the routes they’d taken with the slaves.
And so I began to think of my next album as a trilogy. I could collect music from each part of the Americas, North America, South America, and the Caribbean, and show people how the music all has the same African roots. I decided then that it was time to leave Paris. In America you have all those black and white, Native American, and Latino communities. People of all colors and backgrounds live there. I’d always imagined singing with Cuban singer Celia Cruz and American legend James Brown, and they symbolized the Americas in many ways. But I also wanted to meet other American artists, no matter what ethnicity they belonged to. I wanted to write music with them, to share with them the idea of a common humanity so that a musical dialogue with Africa could begin.
Kidjo, Angelique; Wenrick, Rachel. Spirit Rising (Enhanced Edition): My Life, My Music (Kindle Locations 1784-1787). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
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.