Hey, there’s nothing in my heart.
I’d rather be cool than be smart.
Hey, What I’m thinking of.
I’d rather be cool than be loved.
Here’s what I feel, Ba ba ba ba.
Just want a girl, as cool as Kim Deal.
–The Dandy Warhols, “Cool as Kim Deal” (1997)
Sure, start off a review of one band’s album with somebody else’s song. That’s rational.
I started out on this blog writing some reviews of albums that I considered classic with the intention of trying to explain what makes them timeless and not just tied to their trends and historical context. Recently, but without regret, I have focused a little more on contemporary releases. This doesn’t mean I have forgotten about some older albums—I have just been letting them ‘age’.
One album that I would have worn out if it had not been on CD is the Breeder’s Last Splash. I am going to keep my general argument simple and to the point. This album has been neglected for both its artistic content and for its special appeal as a blend of different styles. It has been underappreciated for the testament it presents to Kim Deal’s talent. And, by implication, it suggests that Deal was an integral influence on the development of alt-rock in the 1980s as a member of the Pixies.
See, Deal was not just the bassist of a band cited by Nirvana and others as a powerful influence; she also went on to form a musical project with a member of the Throwing Muses—a band that eventually opened for Nirvana in Europe and fell into heavy rotation once MTV got addicted to alternative rock.
So, the Breeders’ second release is not really a forgotten album (it received a platinum-selling rating and has been identified as one of the top-50 albums of the 1990s). Yet, from my experience, the Breeders’ Last Splash rarely receives the sacred treatment reserved for or wider recall shared by albums like Green Day’s Dookie or Weezer’s Blue album.
This is the song that everyone knew. It seemed appropriate to the time—downplayed in melody and limited in lyrics, but gritty and impressionistic. It doesn’t so much as express meaning as suggest that meaning may or may not be made.
The way most people remember the Breeders is through the lead single from this album, “Cannonball”. The inscrutability of “Cannonball”’s lyrics are well-matched to its sound—a mealy-mouthed articulation of distorted guitar and basic drums organized around a driving and memorable bassline held together by the vocals. Of course, the song is made by the rhythmic breakdowns as when Deal stops after singing “blown to hell in the crash” to quick-chant “I’m the Last splash”. The image of the spit dropping in the well becomes the declaration of the singer who claims impossibly that she is that spittle on the surface. The claim becomes the title of the album and the image of the cannonball (which rolls so clearly in the video) threatens a much larger and more momentous splash.
The lyrics of this song—like some others and like some Pixies’ compositions—seem nearly Dadaist and surreal if not for the fact that they are contained in a rather rigid and traditional structure. This containment itself may be a metaphor for, if not the relationship between a specific piece of art and artistic conventions, the struggle between personal identity and the lives imposed on us by culture and biology.
(Was that step too far there, my brother? Did I become inscrutable too?)
The band channels some of the grit and contrast of the Pixies, but with just a little less dynamism. The opening track “New Year” is brisk and fuzzy with a strong bass-line (thanks to Kim Deal) and a rather unformed guitar sound. This is no less true of the popular single “Cannonball” where the limitations of Kelly Deal on guitar (who just learned to play) are concealed by the memorable staccato bass line and eerie vocals.
What helps this album stand out from the fuzz-bearing cloud of early nineties songs, however, is not just the heady, unique vocal styling of Deal (the very voice that, in retrospect, helped to make the Pixies so transcendent). It is this voice in conjunction with the willingness to play to the strengths of this group while also drawing on the aesthetic experience of years touring with the Pixies that makes the Breeders so important—especially on this album. The range of the artistic sense starts to take shape on “No Aloha” which sounds like a song a serious and talented girlfriend of one of the members of They Might be Giants might write. The melodious lyricism (and lyrical jest) comes out strongly on the beautiful sixth track “Do You love Me Now” as well.
“Do You love Me Now” has the unexpected play of the Pixies’ “La La Love You” but with a vulnerability and a melody that Frank Blank never achieved on his own
The willingness of Deal to sing prettily lets her cover “Drivin’ on 9” (by the folk group Ed’s Redeeming Qualities). As the 14th song on the album, it may have been an afterthought, but the performance, production and instrumentation provides for a song that is simultaneously ethereal and moving. Deal’s voice twists above and through the music—the articulation of the places and the movement in the song when combined with its instrumentation render scene real and unforgettable.
“Drivin’ on 9” is a cover and a beautiful one at that. I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to this song and been dragged back to some of the chill fall nights after I first bought the album—driving along country roads, the dust of summer gone and autumn’s fog just descending. This song has been on almost every extended playlist I have ever made.
But, I think, what really puts the Deals and this album on the history charts is the way it anticipates (and sometimes betters) rockers to come—Deal’s insouciance just seems so much cooler than the insistence of Garbage or the histrionics of No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani. This isn’t to slight the other performers too severely but instead to point out that there is something so utterly unique, ironic, self-effacing and thoroughly early 1990s about Deal’s performative pose.
Just as the Pixies blended beauty with something more visceral, so too the Breeders balanced Last Splash’s more contemplative spirit with aggression and rock. “I just want to Get Along”, the eighth track, combines the musicality of the single “Cannonball” with more pointed angst. “Divine Hammer”, track ten, similarly pairs liquid vocals with more muscular music. The effect of both songs—so short, perhaps thanks to either the musical aesthetic or the limits of the musician—is to leave you moving and wanting more.
Even the less fantastic tracks exude an overall polish that comes from clarity of vision and simplicity of design. The third song “Invisible Man”, for instance, features Deal’s voice doubled with effects over a simple distorted chord pattern with some orchestration in the background. The song never hits any highs, but it presents a seamless transition between “Cannonball” and “No Aloha”. Similar praise can be made for “Roi” (which gets a reprise at the end of the album). Here the dissonance latent in the earlier songs breaks out in full force with instrumentation more at home in Sonic Youth’s work than that of the Pixies. The vocals are limited and distorted, yet the overall sonic sense seems apt and meditative, some sort of a strange musical midpoint between earlier 90s alt-rock and later ambient metal.
This mostly wordless number, however, has the verve and crescendo of something by the Dirty Three or Sigur Ros. Yet, should you ever piece together the repeated lyric (“”Raw: where the shot leaves me gagging for the arrow”) you are left adrift in wondrous ambiguity. This isn’t surreal; this is thoroughly postmodern.
Before the alt-pop gets too deconstructive, though, the Breeders pick us back up with the light and majorly harmonic “Divine Hammer”—a pop ditty that reminds me more of “Here Comes Your Man” than anything else (although it features the Breeders’ characteristic wave of sound rather than the on and off intensity at home to the Pixies). Even the instrumental “S.O.S”—which is somewhere between surf rock and an angry R.E.M.—supplies the album with consistent character.
Variations on this character seem sweet—the snare roll and bassline in “Hag” starts out with a catty “hag” which seems almost Courtney Love-ish, until Deal finds a melody (something Love never excelled at.) and the sparer “Saint” seems almost inspired by the anthemic “I Love Rock and Roll”; before resolving with the airy and contemplative “Drivin’ on 9”, Deal reminds us that she can truly rock.
At some level, loving or hating a single example of any art form is a matter of personal taste and individual experience until one makes an effort to understand what makes something work and the relationship between the individual form and the original context. I can’t make you (my brother) agree with me that this album is qualitatively better or more important than Green Day’s Dookie (or something like that); but I just might make you consider the case.
Whatever the case, when it is dark because I am on the road too late or two yearly, two decades after the release of this album it is still one of the first I turn to.