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Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Breeders: Pod


1) Glorious; 2) Doe; 3) Happiness Is A Warm Gun; 4) Oh!; 5) Hellbound; 6) When I Was A Painter; 7) Fortunately Gone; 8) Iris; 9) Opened; 10) Only In 3's; 11) Lime House; 12) Metal Man.

You know, there might actually be a good reason why Black Francis rarely, if ever, let Kim Deal contribute her own tunes to Pixies' albums — she just ain't that good a songwriter. Perfect bass playing for that band, awesome vocal sidekick to Frank, charismatic personage all around, but no matter how much I listen to Pod, I just can't remember any of the goddamn songs. They sound totally awesome, for sure, but that's not really «songwriting», the way I see it, it's more like... like... like sleepwalking with a well-tuned bass in one's hands.

But yeah, songwriting ain't everything, and I guess an album like Pod just had to be made, be­cause it's not just «Pixies without the hooks». It's more like The Breeders were a younger brother of The Pixies — you know, the kind of small kid who has not yet had any time to match the achievements of his successful elder brother, but has that ring of endearing promising charm around him. Except that Kim Deal seems to go backwards rather than forward from the Pixies: there is a certain narrowing down of the vision here, a certain amount of deconstruction and focus on the backbone, which, I guess, is sort of natural to expect from a bass player — even if Kim actually doesn't play much bass on this album, so it seems.

Anyway, in 1990, The Breeders, in addition to Kim, were: Tanya Donelly, formerly of Throwing Muses, on guitar and vocals; Josephine Wiggs, on bass and vocals; Britt Walford of Slint on drums, recording under the pseudonym of Shannon Doughton; and Carrie Bradley on violin. Steve Albini, who had already produced Surfer Rosa for Pixies, was brought in to lend his usual stern helping hand — and indeed, Pod sounds closer in style to Surfer Rosa than to Doolittle, because Albini does not like a lot of overdubs, and the ones he does like are either brutally sharp or even more brutally noisy. Here, there is definitely more sharpness than noise.

As you know, the Beatles have a symbolic song for everybody, and the Breeders are no exception: the sole lonesome cover here is Lennon's ʽHappiness Is A Warm Gunʼ, because it symbolizes Kim's major preferences: (a) nonsensical, but evocative (under pressure) lyrics; (b) indifference towards the usual verse-chorus approach to a pop song; (c) gloomy minor keys that may or may not make the jump to major, depending on how pissed you are; (d) an overall impression of stark psychological depth though you have no way whatsoever to explain what exactly is so deep about chanting "Mother Superior jump the gun" like a mantra. Anyway, with Albini onboard this sounds all too much like a Big Black interpretation of the Beatles, and they kind of lop off and subjugate the «optimistic» conclusion of the song, stripped all the way down to broken shards of guitar, among which Kim Deal is absentmindedly strolling barefoot, humming "happiness is a warm gun" like a recently shell-shocked individual. Hmm.

Now, about Kim's own songs... well, Kurt Cobain apparently found them a great inspiration, but unlike Kurt, Kim Deal is not prone to uncontrollable fits of anger or self-pitying with which it would be so easy for the average record-buying teen to associate. Instead, Kim just creates herself a droning wave, straddles it and rides it anywhere it turns out to take her: ʽGloriousʼ, opening the album, sets its general tone fairly well. You get your chug-chug-chugging bass, your one- or two-chord guitar riff, a noisy lead drone, and these weird «stuck-in-adolescence» vocals whose pro­genitor was Maureen Tucker of The Velvet Underground — one of the first ladies of rock who turned the skill of not knowing how to sing into a form of high art.

Of course, the Breeders have much more in common with the Velvets than just the voice: their propensity for droning, their ability to induce a state of «optimistic depression» without spending too much effort, or even Bradley's John Cale-imitating violin passages on ʽOh!ʼ. In terms of repetitiveness, they sometimes go beyond their mentors — for instance, having fallen upon a really cool-sounding bassline at the end of the upbeat ʽWhen I Was A Painterʼ, instead of trying to build up, they build down: first, there's a fuzzy guitar riff going along, then the guitar just disappears and we get fourty seconds of pure bass-drums groove. Somebody else would have employed that as an intro for a gritty rocker — they have it as an outro, because expectations are to be challenged and interpretations are to be sought after.

Then somewhere in the middle of all this befuddlement comes ʽFortunately Goneʼ, the closest thing they have here to a sweet, innocent twee-pop song — probably mighty influential, too, since you could think of it as the blueprint for all these intelligent girl-led pop bands like Allo Darlin'. It also gives away the whole concept of the album, perhaps, with its first line: "I wait for you in heaven / On this perfect string of love". Everything else makes no sense, but this "wait for you in heaven" is quite telling — you see, Kim Deal really plays this part of disembodied spirit, a solitary ghost accidentally lost somewhere in the back alleys of heavenly space, and this explains why commonplace layman emotions like «love», «anger», «sadness», or «happiness» do not really belong with The Breeders. (Nor did they belong with the Pixies, for that matter, but the Pixies were still far more «grounded» than this band.)

Actually, some of the common interpretations for their songs imply that there are fairly mundane subjects covered here, including some rather horrendous ones — ʽHellboundʼ is frequently re­ferred to as a song about a living abortion, allegedly acknowledged as such by Kim herself, but you would never know that without the commentary, and every time I hear that song, I prefer to interpret the "it" that "lives in folds of red and steamy air" not as an undelivered foetus but rather as... well... IT. IT lives, and IT is hellbound. To the grittiest and gloomiest guitar melody on the entire album, though even that one is not too gritty or gloomy. As the girls roll their eyes and go "hellbound hellbound hellbound hellbound hellbound", all you get is the inescapability of hell, but whether hell is such a bad place to be — well, ever since Bon Scott the question remains debatable, and one thing you are not ever going to get from the Breeders is answers. Answers are traps set by real artists for losers.

Although I have to confess from the start that I find myself much more personally attracted to the band's second album than their first one, its overall sound alone, just the way all the ingredients are combined and processed, guarantees a thumbs up from me. It also helps that it is merely thirty minutes long and that all the songs are so short — any more pretense and it would be in danger of becoming a Sonic Youth rip-off with sparser production and poorer playing.

1 comment:

  1. George, your English is mostly excellent, but a misspelling cropped up here that I've noticed in your reviews before: do you realise that "fourty" is actually spelt "forty"?