Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Art of the Deals

More record reviewing today. Don't forget to tune in your computer to at 12PM Eastern on Saturday, 12 Apr 2008, when, among other things, Pop Culture America presents The John and Dave Music Explosion! Music not included.

Mountain Battles -- The Breeders (p. Steve Albini, Erika Larsen, Manny Nieto, Ben Mumphrey)

The Breeders began life as a side project for Kim Deal on hiatus from The Pixies. The band evolved into a kind of alt-chick supergroup with Tanya Donnelly from Throwing Muses and Josephine Wiggs from Perfect Disaster joining Kim by the time of their first full-length record, Pod, produced by legendary punk impressario Steve Albini. Later, with The Pixies temporarily defunct, The Breeders morphed again into Kim Deal's primary gig and with 1993's Last Splash, the band grew into an alterna-juggernaut, propelled by huge college radio hits like "Cannonball" and "Divine Hammer."

By then, Donnelly had left to form Belly and Kim's twin sister Kelley joined up. But on the crest of the success of Last Splash, Kelley was busted for heroine and had to enter rehab (take THAT Amy Winehouse!) and The Breeders went away for almost ten years. Kim recorded here and there, once as The Amps (Pacer: great album; seek it out), later with The Last Hard Men (which included Skid Row's Sebastian Bach).

The Breeders reemerged in 2002, reuniting with producer Albini on Title TK. Kelley was back on board but the rhythm section had become a revolving door. The album sold poorly and Warner Brothers gave them (and many others) the boot.

Now back at The Pixies' old home on 4AD records, and again with Albini (and others) running the board, The Breeders have returned with the new Mountain Battles. It's an ironic name for a record this uncombative; the Deal girls would much rather sleep than fight.

"I can feel it!" Kim declares in an echoing chant on the oddly soaring album opener, "Overglazed," as trippy guitars veer and careen with psychedelic swirls all around her. And that's as much of an active hand as she'll take in these proceedings. The Breeders don't so much play music as they amiably allow music to occur in their presence.

It's a sleight-of-hand trick, of course. It takes a great deal of effort to sound this effortless. Throughout Mountain Battles, the bare edges of melodies and hooks are hinted at, suggested by the playing, only rarely being hammered home. In an age when bombast is the order of the day, The Breeders' casual nuance sounds refreshingly at ease.

And so in their hands, these songs take on a very anti-rock feel. When Kim and Kelley sing "We're gonna rise," for instance, it's not a fist-pumping call to arms; it's more like a piece of dreamy wishful thinking for the following morning.

Like the tunes that are only sketchily outlined, whole musical styles tickle the periphery, suggested like shadows or half-seen images. "Here No More," which quotes Gerald Massey by way of Cream, is a mournful country waltz, played as if only half remembered. Elsewhere, WorldBeat is alleged by "German Studies," "Istanbul," and the Jose Feliciano-esque "Regalame Esta Noche," the last played as if it were the theme to 1962's coolest prom.

There are, by necessity, a few change-ups mixed in, harder, louder rockers like "Walk It Off" and "No Way," and while fun, they seem a bit obligatory. It's almost a shame that Kim and company couldn't just indulge in the semi-somnolent dreamfog of the rest of the record.

The one exception to that is the cover of The Tasties' "It's the Love," a propulsive track that in the context of this album comes off as positively frenzied and would have fit right in with Last Splash's poppiest confections.

Mountain Battles has been recorded using Albini's philosophy of "All Wave." As defined on The Breeders homesite, All Wave is a recording style that eschews any use of computers, digital alteration or any of the other modern staples of the studio. It endeavors to put as little distance and distortion as possible between the artist and the listener. The result in evidence here is intimate and flawed and at times, positively maddening.

Just the way human interaction is supposed to be.

3 1/2 stars.

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