Monday, May 14, 2018

The real Deals

After years of playing stellar bass and second fiddle to Black Francis in the Pixies, one of the most idiosyncratic alt-rock bands of the 1980s, Kim Deal decided to branch out on her own. She recorded a set of demos with Tanya Donelly (of The Throwing Muses) and violinist Carrie Bradley. With Josephine Wiggs on bass, this became the first Breeders album, Pod (1990). The following year, the Pixies disbanded, Donnelly and Bradley left The Breeders, and Kelley Deal (Kim’s sister) and Jim McPherson joined. This was the line-up that recorded Last Splash, arguably the band’ best album, bursting with hooks and eccentricities and supplying an alt-rock barnstormer for the ages in Cannonball.

Despite the critical success of Last Splash, The Breeders went their separate ways in 1994. The Deal sisters reunited for two albums, Title TK (2001) and Mountain Battles (2008). But the Last Splash line-up, the tightest iteration of the band, never got back together—until now. On All Nerve, their first studio album in a decade, the group plays to its strengths: the subversion of rock and pop clichés, the off-kilter humour, and Kim’s singularly charming voice, which is always threatening to veer off pitch.

Nervous Mary is pure Breeders, with its churning riff, plangent guitars and frankly strange lyrics (Madrid in my nose/black lung in my hand). It makes sense that the album would open with it, though I wish they’d opted for track 2 instead. “Good morning!” their founder-singer-guitarist yells, kicking off Wait In The Car, a blast of pure punk pop and Kim Deal weirdness (Always struggle with the right word/Meow meow meow meow meow). It’s over in 2 minutes, but it sounds like the work of a young band, and like the old band we know, which is all one can really ask for.

The loud/soft dynamic in the songs of The Breeders (and the Pixies before them) was hugely influential—Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was a vocal fan of both bands. Spacewoman is the best example of this on the album, with the song’s gentle verses giving way to grungy guitars in the chorus. Dawn: Making An Effort shimmers unexpectedly, like a shoegaze number; Howl At The Summit has the demented whine of I Am The Walrus (an outright Beatles cover, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, featured on Pod). The one cover on this album is a rarity: German commune rock band Amon Düül II’s Archangel Thunderbird. It’s more straightforward than their cover—almost a critique—of Aerosmith’s Lord Of The Thighs, but is nonetheless dynamic, with McPherson’s frenetic drumming recalling his work on Cannonball.

All Nerve clocks in at 31 minutes; six of its 11 tracks are under the 3-minute mark. Given this relatively slim running time, you might wish Skinhead #2 built to a point, or that the menacing Metagoth didn’t sound like a retread of the Pixies’ Gouge Away. But these are small quibbles. It’s invigorating to be in The Breeders’ company again, especially since their sound—which informs the approach of hip new artists like The Courtneys and Courtney Barnett—has hardly dated. Because the band has dropped albums after long hiatuses, they’ve never had to reinvent themselves. As a reminder, a cheery “Good morning” is all that’s needed.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

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