Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly were frustrated with their limited creative roles in their rock groups (Pixies and Throwing Muses, respectively), a consequence of the tyranny of their band leaders; neither was yet ready to sever ties with their rock outfit, however, so the solution to their artistic suppression was to embark on a side-project, an enterprise they elected to name The Breeders.
Given the motivation behind forming The Breeders, it's ironic that Donelly found herself in precisely the predicament that she was in as a member of Throwing Muses upon entering this new venture. Kim Deal assumed control over the creative end of the band at its inception and was reluctant to relinquish any of her newfound power to her collaborator, placing herself as the primary songwriter in the group. Feeling her creative voice stifled once more, Donelly left The Breeders after Pod, going on to found the indie rock cadre Belly.
It's evident throughout the album that it's Kim Deal who prevailed in the band's struggle for power, as Pod is markedly reminiscent of Surfer Rosa (at least in the stylistic department). This pronounced resemblance can also be attributed, however, to the fact that Steve Albini, the mastermind behind the production of the Pixies' full length debut, also produced Pod, and his influence is felt throughout the album.
This dose of early Pixies atmospherics is one of Pod's greatest assets, as an otherworldly vibe is sustained for the duration of the album, a haunting, tenebrous mood that permeates every track, compensating for the occasional lackluster number.
Fortunately the atmospherics are seldom necessary as a crutch, as Deal proves that she's fully deserving of an outlet for her own creative voice. While she's not on the same level as Black Francis she's certainly a more than competent songwriter, gifted with a strong facility for conjuring catchy riffs and memorable vocal melodies.
Pod's caliginous aura helps give the album a cohesive feel; the ubiquity and uniformity of its atmospherics, rather than coming across as a method to mask a dearth of diversity, instead unifies the CD with a common theme, engendering a kind of wholeness that can usually only be found in concept albums.
This unified feel elevates tracks that would normally be derided as filler, like Oh!, to a position where they can be fully enjoyed, with their alluring mood concealing their sonic liabilities.
The tracks that truly benefit from the atmospherics, however, are the ones that boast sufficiently strong songwriting to thrive on their own, highlights made all the more remarkable through the injection of this pervasive, other-worldly vibe.
These highpoints include the infectious rocker Lime House, the riff propelled flirtation with dissonance Iris, the menacing Opened and the simultaneously poppy and frightening anthem Hellbound.
The spare, minimalistic interpretation of the Beatles' Happiness Is A Warm Gun also merits attention; while it's obviously inferior to the Fab Four's original, it's different enough that it can succeed on its own terms, offering a dark, striking experience that's a natural fit for the tone of the album.
Thus Pod is quite a strong affair, a set of well written, well produced and well performed tracks that, while not classics, nearly all have something worthwhile to offer. Kim Deal is not nor will she ever be a top tier songwriter, but her abilities are still apparent and she's more than capable of making an impact on the indie rock scene. The purpose of Pod is to give her a chance to exhibit her full potential, and in that regard the album is a monumental success, an adroit demonstration of the gifts that she was forced to keep in stasis during her tenure with the Pixies.
Shortly after the release of Pod Tanya Donelly parted ways with the band, a departure that further cemented Kim Deal as the driving creative force behind The Breeders. As a songwriter Donelly had only contributed a modicum of material to the group, so this loss hardly presented an insurmountable obstacle for the band to overcome, and in many respects the lack of Steve Albini as producer likely had more of a direct impact on The Breeders' sound than Donelly's absence.
Last Splash is indeed a vastly different product from The Breeders' debut, eschewing moody, spare soundscapes drenched in otherworldly palettes in favor of more accessible, axiomatic and generic alternative rock tunes. Unsurprisingly the album's more mainstream nature catapulted it to the top of the charts, transfiguring an obscure indie outfit into an overnight sensation, eclipsing any of the fame and fortune that Deal had accrued as a member of the Pixies. While artistically and qualitatively The Breeders are and will always be a far cry from the glory of Deal's erstwhile band, she had indeed surpassed the Pixies on a commercial level. This was done, in part, by stripping away the elements that had made her identity in The Breeders recognizable to fans of her Pixies performances, finally shedding the trappings her old career in favor of a more commercially viable sound.
Given the album's apparent commitment to erasing all reminders of Deal's past, it's natural that Albini wasn't retained as the official court producer; the band no longer wanted to evoke memories of Surfer Rosa's tenebrous moods or idiosyncratic sonic textures, and thus he was hardly equipped to lead The Breeders into a more standard alternative rock arena.
Rather than recruit another indie pseudo-star pining for a greater role in a rock band, Kim Deal selected her sister Kelley as Donelly's replacement. The Deal sisters had actually had a garage band called The Breeders in their youth, so it's apt that this reunion would occur under that particular name. Kelley Deal, while she would run into problems with narcotics and other decadent vices in the future, provided stable instrumental backing for the time being, and as far as musicianship is concerned the loss of Donelly is not sorely felt.
Perhaps Kim Deal was trying to forge her own artistic identity by abandoning the classic Pixies sound, but in the process of doing so she merely makes herself come across as less distinctive; the Pixies occupied a unique niche on the rock scene, and thus when Deal adhered to their style she may not have sounded original but she certainly didn't sound generic. By simply performing standard alt-rock material she loses whatever distinctiveness she once possessed, sounding derivative and by-the-numbers, descriptions that could never have been applied to her ex-group.
Albini's conspicuous absence is only responsible in part for this regrettable transformation, as it's Deal's own songwriting that's the real culprit. Most of the songs she penned for Last Splash could never have sounded even remotely like Pixies songs regardless of how they were arranged or produced, devoid of the creativity, eccentricity and idiosyncratic nuances that animated that band's output.
What makes these changes acceptable is that while the material on Last Splash may sound like generic alternative rock, they sound, for the most part, like quite strong generic alternative rock, boasting some solid melodies and catchy riffs. While I harbor reservations about a once unique group descending into artistic conformity, I have few objections to alt-rock when it's well-performed and entertaining.
Furthermore, even if Deal doesn't sound like her past self, she still has enough innate personality and musical charisma to stand out to at least some extent, a factor that somewhat dilutes Last Splash's generic nature.
Unfortunately, Last Splash is hardly bereft of problems well beyond the scope of its familiar character. There's an alarmingly substantial amount of filler on the album, which heavily exacerbates the CD's myriad other shortcomings. If Last Splash was a topnotch alternative rock album I'd be far more forgiving of its considerable vices; as a flawed alternative rock album, however, the amount of filler present profoundly irks me, relegating what could have been a very good product to the lesser category of merely 'solid.'
The album certainly well deserves the designation of solid, however, as it sports more than enough strong tracks to never sink below the level of this middle-of-the-road assessment. From the stellar riff rocker Cannonball, a massive hit that merits its huge popularity as a single thanks to its abundant hooks and anthemic character, to the supremely catchy Divine Hammer which almost sounds Smiths-like in its softer nature, there are a handful of high quality alt-rock tunes that prove that Deal has retained much of the songwriting acumen that made Pod such a strong product.
Despite these entertaining moments Last Splash is nothing if not erratic, however; while New Year is another strong rocker, Invisible Man is a ho-hum ballad marred by the affected, almost Germanic vocal inflections adopted by Deal that makes her sound like a poor man's Nico. No Aloha has little to offer, Roi is a desultory instrumental that never accomplishes much of note and Do You Love Me? fails to live up to the reputation it earned from the original version found on the Safari EP.
Flipside is another enjoyable rocker, but I Just Wanna Get Along is merely filler. Mad Lucas may be the nadir of the album with its enervated pace and nondescript nature, and Hag doesn't do much to rise above that level. S.O.S. is far better, however, as is the rocker Saints, a reminder of the fact that, on this album at least, The Breeders are at their best when they rock.
Drivin' On is pleasant country pop, a far cry from her ex-partner Frank Black's work in the genre but still enjoyable; most importantly, it adds some much needed diversity to an otherwise rather one-note affair. It had might as well be the final track on the album, as Deal elected to end Last Splash with an abridged cut of the already underwhelming Roi.
Thus Last Splash is a solid but flawed affair, woefully inconsistent but not without occasional flashes of the brilliance exhibited on the group's previous album. There's nothing wrong with changing one's sound, but Deal would have been well advised to wait until she had a stronger set of songs before proceeding in a radically new direction. As it stands the album is quite good by generic alternative rock standards, but it appears somewhat less inspired when taken in the context of Deal's legendary indie career.
Rather than capitalize on their newfound fortune, a success that, in the harsh climate of modern rock, could certainly prove all too ephemeral, The Breeders instead elected to take a prolonged hiatus, a sabbatical that lasted nearly a decade and was disrupted only by the occasional side-project like the short-lived indie rock outfit The Amps.
The reason for this lag between albums is hardly unfathomable; one could attribute The Breeders' hibernation to myriad factors, from Kelley Deal's narcotics bust to the pressures of sudden, unexpected stardom to mere writer's block, but regardless of the catalyst for their temporary shutdown the group faded from the limelight as rapidly as they had come into it, a truly risky gambit as, given the fickle nature of rock and roll, there was no reason to suspect that they could ever reclaim the position they'd seized a whole nine years before.
Even more surprising is the group's decision to dramatically alter their sound. Given the monumental success of Last Splash one would assume that The Breeders would continue on in a similar vein upon returning to the indie rock arena. Instead the group opted to resurrect the Pixies-lite formula they'd honed on Pod, a mystifying decision that the band attempted to effect by renewing their collaboration with their erstwhile producer Steve Albini.
I'd remarked during my Last Splash review that even had Albini masterminded the Breeders' sophomore effort it would have been impossible to restore the style of Pod given that drastic shifts in Kim Deal's approach to songwriting. Title TK verifies this suspicion, marrying generic alt-pop elements to Albini's signature dark, spare sound, resulting in a stylistic clash that irreparably damages the entire album.
While I favored the sonic dynamics of Pod over the sound of Last Splash, I find the generic alternative pop of the latter infinitely preferable to fusing wholly incompatible elements together in a futile attempt to approximate the feel of the former. Albini's production can be quite alluring in some contexts, but it's not an inherently 'good thing' that can be applied to ameliorate any product. The songwriting and performances need to gel with the production for it to work, and if one fails to take this into account the result is a debacle of massive proportions, and in this case an album far worse than I would have ever dreamed The Breeders capable of.
Even more alarming is the fact that Title TK would have been a profound misfire even had the group retained the production style of Last Splash. Albini's presence certainly exacerbates the situation, but the fact of the matter is that the songwriting on Title TK is simply lackluster regardless of any studio sheen or raw lo-fi vibe. Despite taking a nine year vacation Kim Deal didn't return to the rock scene invigorated, or with a portfolio of stellar tunes she'd penned during her time off; rather, she came back seemingly devoid of any inspiration, and the resultant product is easily the nadir of Deal's entire career.
Between the incongruous production and pedestrian songwriting Title TK is often a chore to sit through, and the 'charming' vocal tricks that the Deal sisters employ to accentuate their music make the experience all the more irksome. There are still a modicum of interesting tracks, those that prevail through both Albini and Deal's destructive touches to emerge as something at least somewhat worthwhile, but there's nothing I would ever call a hidden gem or a lost classic. The melodies on the album are simply not engaging, with no timeless hooks to salvage this aural disaster.
Tracks like the closer Huffer are simply embarrassing, a misguided attempt to merge alt-pop with punk-rock energy. Elsewhere, on Sinister Foxy Deal tries her hand at creating a Pixies style number, but whereas eccentric absurdity of this nature came seemingly effortlessly to Black Francis, coming from Deal it sounds forced and awkward, a testament to the creative gulf between the two former partners.
Thus the process of merging The Breeders' first two albums resulted in a disaster for the third. The atmosphere of Pod, so attractive at first, becomes a calamity on Title TK, while the more mainstream songwriting style adopted on Last Splash would prove a poor counterpoint to Albini's production even were the caliber of the compositions higher.
Thus Title TK consists of little more than poor material further damaged by a convergence of disparate elements that simply don't fit together. Even after nine years it's clear that Deal returned to the world of rock far too quickly, and would have been better served to take the time to pen more of the catchy riffs and melodies she's known for. Furthermore, if she better understood her own output and wasn't so determined to force a certain style on her content then she never would have permitted Albini to so hastily superimpose his own sound upon the album, but rather would have found an apt, appropriate production method that would complement her work instead of attempting to mold it into something it neither is nor should be.
The Breeders were left with quite the predicament in the wake of the disastrous Title TK. If the band returned to the generic alternative rock dynamics of the highly lucrative Last Splash then they'd be in danger of stagnating, regressing or, at the very least, taking the most conservative approach to their dilemma. If The Breeders embarked upon another Steve Albini-led foray into Pixies territory, however, they'd risk producing another debacle of the magnitude of Title TK with little hope of recapturing the magic of their debut album. Thus the group had to make a clean break from their past, as each prior album would lead them inexorably toward certain disaster.
This scenario is complicated by the fact that The Breeders had never really established their own identity in the realm of rock music. While an impressive package, Pod is a thinly veiled mimicry of the Pixies, Last Splash is colossally derivative and Title TK is little more than an attempted synthesis of the two. There are no hidden signs within these albums to direct The Breeders toward any new ideas or inspirations, no cryptic passages or oblique remarks that could be construed as pointing a way to a bright new future for the band.
Thus it seemed as if the group were irrevocably consigned to a bleak fate wherein they'd merely endlessly regurgitate the same recycled ideas and unsuccessful formulas, bereft of any visionary concepts or creative solutions to lead to an artistic renaissance for the band. There would be no future for The Breeders if they couldn't extricate themselves from this creative rut, as any future adherence to the blueprints of their past work would indelibly stamp them as a premature casualty in the world of alternative rock.
Fortunately Deal and company found a remedy for the conundrum they were faced with; I wouldn't say that they fashioned an entirely new identity for themselves, but nevertheless Mountain Battles is a refreshing departure from the sound of their previous work, an idiosyncratic creation that never relies on rehashing past glories.
Perhaps Kim Deal was reinvigorated by her recent reunion with the Pixies, or maybe she was simply desperate to prove that her artistic reservoir had yet to run dry, but at any rate Mountain Battles dispels any suspicions that her creativity had atrophied over the course of her long, albeit hardly prolific, career.
Mountain Battles often sounds experimental, but in reality it's quite accessible, certainly more so than the one-note Title TK. Furthermore, it's also a considerably diverse affair, alternating sixties-esque psychedelia with heavy riff-rockers, international exotica, avant garde escapades and haunting ballads.
The most significant development, however, is the reemergence of Kim Deal as a gifted songwriter, which in and of itself makes Mountain Battles a stunning return to form after the creative bankruptcy of Title TK. The album is still somewhat erratic, as evidenced by the likes of the grating primitivism of Bang On, the banal and incongruous Spanish-language Regalame Esta Noche (which aspires to be a beautiful, catharsis inducing anthem but simply feels like a cheap stunt), the sub par Istanbul and the plodding, deadening self-indulgence of the title track.
Nevertheless the bulk of the songwriting is quite strong, with myriad tracks that can be counted amongst the band's finest creations. Any jaded listeners who became disenchanted with the band after Title TK can immediately rejoice in the early moments of the album, as the opener Overglazed, while not a timeless classic, sounds distinctive and unique without resorting to Albini-esque excesses; it also features a strong melody, one that's inherently creative as opposed to a standard tune that the band sought to make sound creative by piling gratuitous production techniques on top of it.
Night Of Joy is eerie and unsettling while remaining catchy and entertaining, German Studies is a stellar riff-rocker and a definite highlight on the album, Walk It Off was directly influenced by Deal's recent experiences with the reborn Pixies and to good effect at that and No Way is another convincing hard rock anthem.
Even with something of a new identity The Breeders are still far from a 'great' band; Kim Deal isn't a world class songwriter, nor is there anything remarkable about the group's instrumental chops. They are, however, a talented rock outfit who definitely have something to offer; those expecting the rightful successors to the Pixies' throne at the pinnacle of modern rock will be gravely disappointed, but those looking for some catchy, unique and entertaining music could certainly do far worse than giving The Breeders a chance.