It’s a truism of romance that dysfunctional relationships don’t usually end for good until something better comes along to replace them. For Kim Deal, the Breeders — formed as a side project with Tanya Donelly (moonlighting from Throwing Muses on her way to forming Belly) as a parallel to the Pixies, which had increasingly come to be dominated by her bandmate, Black Francis — became not just an escape route from a dead-end and deteriorating situation but an entirely new and better way of life.
The Breeders’ initial dynamic on Pod was a mess of conflicting impulses and untested strengths mediated by Steve Albini in one of his most restrained “engineering” efforts. Deal, singing and playing guitar (rather than the bass she shouldered in the Pixies), and Donelly (guitar/vocals) at least pretend to search for an equilibrium between the former’s need for unchallenged turbulent discharge and the latter’s predilection for firmly structured pop. But the band is clearly Deal’s deal. Donelly scores but one co-writing credit, and Pod‘s sound consistently favors the Pixies far more than the Muses; even the melodicism of “Doe” and “Fortunately Gone” can’t simmer down to credible gentleness. A cover of John Lennon’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” lacks context, but adds a useful frisson of creepiness to the unpolished enthusiasms. With Josephine Wiggs (soon to be ex-Perfect Disaster) on bass and Slint drummer Britt Walford (using the name Shannon Doughton), the quartet is loose and casually aggressive; whatever internal tension there might have been only feeds the album’s edgy hunger. Hindered by lax, unfinished songwriting and arrangements, Pod is distinctly an extracurricular effort, but an encouraging and frequently exciting one.
Deal was an ex-Pixie by the time the Breeders resurfaced on record, so the four-song Safari became a banner of her full-time future. Meanwhile, the addition of her twin sister Kelley (untrained guitar/vocals) to the lineup signaled the transition that would ultimately reshape the group. The Breeders’ elements are better organized into a distinctive sound — undersung vocals with ferocious loud/soft guitar dynamics over a deliberate beat — but material weakness remains a problem. A bottom-heavy harmony cover of the Who’s “So Sad About Us” without an ending is the dubious highlight here, and that’s no breakthrough for ’90s alternakids.
That was enough second-bananadom for Donelly, and she left. Drummer Jim MacPherson arrived to join Wiggs in the rhythm pen and — with a confident, spectacular album as their calling card — the Deals became rock’s best-known sister act since Heart. Last Splash pulls all the pieces together in a stirring display of teeth, claws, fuzzy distortion and cagey melodies, sung with ethereal sweetness — an instantly recognizable sonic signature layered on like fluffy blankets strewn with sand. This enigmatic explosion of id teases and kicks, tightening and relaxing its grip around a soft, firm center, whether wiggling like a funky worm on a hook (“Cannonball”), blasting apart drippy ’70s pop (“Divine Hammer,” “Invisible Man”), ripping apart Pixiesque punk (two versions of “Roi,” “Hag”), deconstructing Beatlisms (“Saints”), accessing country-rock (“Drivin’ on 9”) or taking a surf-rock break (the instrumental “Flipside”). Indicative of how much more accomplished the group has become, a new version of the EP’s longing “Do You Love Me Now?” is altogether better. Flirty, sexy and stocked with enigmas that could only be in-jokes, Last Splash turns unselfconsciousness into a multi-faceted blast of female personality. The Cannonball EP contains an Aerosmith cover.
Live in Stockholm is a CD issue of the band’s official that loudly documents 20 minutes in May (’94). The set includes a half-dozen Last Splash songs, Pod’s “Hellbound,” the non-LP “Shocker in Gloomtown” and Kim’s recipe for a mudslide (equal parts vodka, Kahlua and Bailey’s).
Quite unlike the creative desires that led to the Breeders, legal problems — namely her sister’s 1995 drug bust — led Kim Deal to put the band on hold and convoke a side project, the Amps, with MacPherson and two non-Breeders, bassist Luis Lerma and guitarist/singer Nathan Farley. Addressing the impairment issue in “Hoverin,” Deal announces “Yeah, we’re straight — we get high on music,” offering this advice, which could be to Kelley and could concern either band participation or life expectancy: “Don’t do it if you plan to stick around.” Sounding like Last Splash with a good deal of the life, joy and imagination sucked out, Pacer delivers perfectly good Breeder-like songs (“I Am Decided,” “She’s a Girl,” “Mom’s Drunk” and “Bragging Party,” which isn’t far off a rewrite of “Divine Hammer”) in disappointing small-scale arrangements. Other than the fine title track and a few others, the performances are forced and lackluster; the production varies between flat and colorless. Deal’s desire to keep busy is understandable, but Pacer slumps halfheartedly in the wrong direction.
For her part, Kelley Deal returned to action in ’96 with a new quartet and a self-released album.