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20 Years On: The Breeders' Last Splash Revisited
Emily Mackay , August 12th, 2013 05:42

Emily Mackay enjoys goosebumps - or is that endures horripilation - on relistening to the Breeders' second LP

Of all the fine pies the Deal sisters have rammed their inquisitive digits into, if you were to hold up one of their works as the one, it would have to be the heart-emblazoned sleeve of Last Splash. Yet much of what makes The Breeders' second album a key album of the 90s alt.rock crossover is what made it, for those with certain expectations, a disappointment or missed opportunity on its release.

After the cluster-fax dissolution of the Pixies, a statement record was expected from Kim Deal – a "Now I'll show you what I can really do, bitches" moment. Having been dismissed by Frank Black in NME at the start of 1993 as having written "maybe half of two songs", it was her time to prove herself.

Also, after the flukey success of 'Cannonball', the album's lead single, one might have expected an album that took the warped, poppy tendencies of The Breeders' 1990 debut Pod (written when the band still consisted of Kim, Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses/Belly, Josephine Wiggs and Britt Walford of Slint) even further.

Neither of those things happened. Last Splash is an erratic, awkward, cocky record, almost a self-sabotage, a satire. Just two years after Sonic Youth and Nirvana took intemperate noise to the majors and the charts, the insolent Deal sisters appeared to be taking the rampant piss about the very idea of 'crossover'. Critics were confused by the album's stylistical mood swings and textural fixations. What did happen, though, was that Last Splash, released through major label Elektra in the US, outsold not only Frank Black's solo debut but all of the Pixies albums as well. The new line-up Breeders, with Kim's twin sister Kelley and Jim Macpherson, were suddenly a big deal, a radio-ambivalent unit-shifter.

But... how? Even when you know it inside out, memories of Last Splash, when not listened to for a while, are skewed towards the 'Divine Hammer' and 'Saints' end of the spectrum, the scuzzy, scrappy (though, for audiophile Kim, artfully, studiedly so) pop songs, so that to revisit it is a shock. It's so... weird, so stretched and distorted into bizarre shapes, refracted and coming at you from the most obtuse of angles.

'New Year' starts with a riff that sounds more like a weary, stoned last post than a call to arms, collapsing into a woozy sway, dark twangs and crashes of guitar, and a psychedelic address: "We have come for light / Wholly, we have come for light..." Suddenly roused, it picks up into a fevered scuzzy thrash and swerve, a maelstrom of feedback: "I am the sun / I am the new year". It's oblique, baffling but, as always, fun.

And then! 'Cannonball': as relentlessly, reptile-brain, lustily, horripilatingly adrenalised as the first time you heard it, inducing an id-level fight-or-flight-or-dance-dance-dance response. That urgent, buzzing, bullet-mic vocal, that rubbery, accidental-genius bassline (Josephine Wiggs hit upon the key-changeish note variation entirely by chance). The song was originally titled 'Grunggae' owing to its scuzzy groove but it's the relentless build towards that explosion of drums, the flailing release of the chorus that makes it. Pixies' loudQUIETloud trick wasn't solely Frank Black's calling card. it seemed. The juddering orgasmic glory of the "in the shade" refrain, the sick sweetness of the Deal sister's vocals, so coquettish ("I know you, you little libertine... I know you're a real kookoo")... it's one of those perfect freaks.

Not, of course, the album's sole banger – not when 'Divine Hammer' is around. Oh, 'Divine Hammer'! Just like 'Here Comes Your Man', a dirty doo-wop of dubious lust so loveable and giddy you can't quite ever get over it. I would so bang this song all day.

'Saints' is the album's oft-overlooked third killer tune, a stop-start-surforama beast lurching towards the bleachers to get baked. Kim's got her full snarl on here, not quite as terrifying as she was on 'Safari', but close. You might well go to the fair she's planning on attending in the lyrics, but just don't turn your back when she's on the coconut shy.

But for the most part, the album is disorientatingly disparate, little concerned with tunes, obsessed with tone and groove. 'Invisible Man' is a smacky, psychy haze, pairing the poppy tones of the plaintive verse (strings, even!) with grinding and subtly unsettling guitar and an omninous chorus. The guitar solo has a delicious tone, warm and burnished and damaged like rusty metal singing sadly to itself of its memories in a salvage yard.

The haunted, reverby girl-group tones of 'No Aloha' have been echoed by so many recent bloggy types it no longer sounds as strange as it once did, but Kim's vocal puts it on a level beyond, all at once affecting and affected, weary, sarcastic, suggestive of hidden depths. The airy casualness of that contentious line "Saw it on the wall: motherhood means mental freeze... Freezeheads!" is deliciously funny to boot.

'Roi' and 'Roi (Reprise)', some of the most troubling points for contemporary reviewers, (who perhaps, as Keith Cameron put it in his 6/10 NME review, "expected too much - an album's worth of 'Cannonballs', for instance") are some of my favourite moments on the album, the toothsome grind and that romping riff betraying the Deal sisters' longstanding teen-smackhead Led Zep fantasies, spinning out into a psychy wasteland before returning with a vengeance. And if you're going to make a song with only one line, you can do a hell of a lot worse than "RAW... when the shot leaves me gagging for the arrow".

'Do You Love Me Now' is lovesickness as sleeping sickness, a lethargic, lurching lovesong with chugging riffs, in which Kim makes the most trite of lyrics ("Do you wish you were here/ Like I wish you were too") oddly affecting by the very deadpanness of her delivery. It's quite sweet, until Kelley and Kim's ferocious twin vocals, with their rhythm section standing shoulder-to-shoulder, get demanding: "Come back to me RIGHT. NOW."

'Mad Lucas', another one that those not on board with the album's idiosyncratic style-romp find infuriating, is far more palatable to modern ears with its vintage mic, dreamy steel guitar and creepy vocals. "Arise, wash your face from cinders and ash / You're a nuisance, and I don't like dirt": it's a cracked whisper from a fractured personality, a skewed lullaby to frayed nerves (although the final lines are also creepily sexily: "Eternal providence / Open sesame").

'Hag' layers a supernatural charm reminiscent of the spookiness that the Muses and Belly also indulged in (see Belly's 'Witch', Muses' 'Devil's Roof') with serrated riffery and heavy shoegaze hangings of sound. The titular harridan is berated, but also oddly beguiling, and seemingly scrubs up not bad for a servant of Satan: "You're just like a woman... sometimes, under the stars, under their light, they're everything right."

'SOS' is the best sort of instrumental, a giddy, stop-start, minute-and-a-half breathless, bed-haired mess that gets in and gets out before you quite know what's going on. 'Flipside' provides a little light relief with its surfy, pinball machine cutesy guitar line, clipped quickfast rhythm and exuberantly splashing cymbals. It is so much fun. Sonic Youth never had this much fun. It sounds raw and live and alive and amazing. Deal would later brand and logo her "all-wave" production method (no computers, digital recording or autotuning) but if you think that sounds like an analogue fetishist borefest, just have a listen to this song.

'I Just Wanna Get Along' starts in the same tone, albeit more Pixies-ish, with its bungee-jumping guitar. Fitting, as it so clearly about Frank Black it couldn't be more obvious if Kim had called it 'Fuck You And The Fax Machine You Rode In On' (presumably that's why she got Kelley to sing it). It's furious but funny, a stomping up-yours with sarky spoken chorus and stop-start drums. "If you're so special, why aren't you dead?" is also one of the best 'does that even make sense?' lyrical put-downs ever.

The most singable moment, though, is Kelley's pure-adorable vocal on the country ballad 'Drivin On' 9'. It's ambling and lovely, with nothing dark or ugly about it. Oh, wait: "I'll sure look pretty / Carson City / Walking down the aisle / Does daddy have a shotgun? / He said he'd never need one..." It's the way those thorns are snuck in with such humour, and so seemingly carefree, that makes the Breeders such a rare treasure in the sometimes humour-deficient alt.rock crossover period. If there's one thing that defines them as a gang, it's effortless, give a shit cool, after all - discovering this album in the late 90s as a teenage girl, how could one take Shirley Manson seriously ever again?

And perhaps the 20th birthday of their strange day in the sun comes at a serendipitous time: the anniversary reissue of Last Splash, LSXX, packed with illuminating demos, EPs, live shows and what have you, came at a parallel moment for Kim Deal, as she announced her depature from the post-reunion, hiatusing Pixies, and focused on Last Splash anniversary tours. She's also curated, with the rest of the Breeders, an ATP festival and self-released a couple of bolshy seven-inch singles that suggests she's feeling in frisky creative fettle. Perhaps, just maybe new Breeders material is a possibility - a delightful case of history rebreeding itself. Just don't expect anything, ok?