Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Breeders - "Mountain Battles" (4AD 2008)

When I first heard The Pixies Surfer Rosa in the fall of 1988 I was totally knocked on my ass. I had never heard anything like it. The track that jumped out at me the most was "Gigantic", sung by the bass player credited as "Mrs. John Murphy". When Doolittle was released in 1989 I was there to buy it and, while suitably impressed with the album, was disappointed that "Mrs. John Murphy", now revealed as Kim Deal, had a much reduced presence. I saw The Pixies on the Doolittle tour, and discovered that their reputation as a notoriously dull live band was not unearned. The one saving grace was the energetic and engaging stage presence of Kim Deal. Imagine my delight in 1990 when I caught wind of a project that Kim Deal and Throwing Muses guitarist Tanya Donelly had put together called The Breeders. I immediately rushed out and bought Pod and, to the dismay of several of my Pixies loyalist friends, decided The Breeders kicked The Pixies ass up and down the block. The Safari EP in 1991 further cemented my opinion. Then, in 1993, came Last Splash.

Few records have affected me the way Last Splash did upon hearing it for the first time. It was, and is, in a word, brilliant. Beginning to end. Easily in the top five records of the decade. I saw The Breeders live and, in spite of the relatively recent addition of Kim's sister Kelley Deal and her obvious self consciousness and stage fright, they were terrific. I couldn't stop listening to the record. When I wasn't listening to it I couldn't get the songs out of my head. I thought, This band will go down as one of the greatest American bands ever!

Then, silence. Rumors began making the rounds of serious drug abuse in The Breeders camp. Kelley Deal was busted on drug charges. The Breeders had broken up - a rumor seemingly reinforced by Kim Deal's band sans Kelley The Amps release of Pacer in 1996 (a perfectly charming record, but lacking the ballsiness, so to speak, of The Breeders). Kelley Deal re-emerged with The Kelley Deal 5000. More rumors - Kelley was back in The Breeders and they were working on an album, but the sessions were again plagued by heavy drug use and little progress was being made. Finally, in 2002, The Breeders released the lackluster and unfocused Title TK to mixed reactions and a great deal of disappointment from me.

When I heard The Breeders were at work on a new album, what would be their first in six years, I dragged up as much of that enthusiasm left over from 1993 as I could. Certainly over a six year period the Deal sisters could crank out some truly inspired stuff.

I wish I could say this is true of Mountain Battles. While not quite as lackluster as Title TK it displays the same lack of focus and exudes a laconic vibe that suggests the Deals just don't care anymore. Album opener "Overglazed" begins promisingly enough with a nice energy until you realize it's a repeating three chord riff with the words "I can feel it" sung over it again and again. That's it. That's the first song.

From this launching point you generally get a record comprised of songs like "We're Gonna Rise" - they sound kind of like The Breeders, but they don't go anywhere and sound like the band was bored during the process of recording them. Even worse, you have songs like the inappropriately named and self-indulgent "Spark" or the following "Istanbul" which is just plain stupid (I'm sorry - there's simply no other word for it).

There are redeeming interludes - "German Studies" shows off some of the old energy and, as the song is sung entirely in German, a sense of humor as well. The driving bass and catchy melody of "Walk It Off" is worth the listen, and "Here No More" is immediately reminiscent of "Drivin' on 9" from Last Splash. Reminiscent is, sadly, the operative word here. Even these standout moments are pale reflections of The Breeders' finest moments. "It's The Love", the second to last song on the record, finally sounds like The Breeders ought to sound - the riff and melody are engaging, the energy is up, and the appealing simplicity of a great pop hook is present. Would that the Deal sisters had made a whole record like this. They're certainly capable. Or at least used to be.

The record closes with the title track, "Mountain Battles" - a dense, slow, keyboard heavy exercise in avant garde self indulgence unlike anything else on the album. It's really a good summation of what you just listened to - briefly original but primarily slow, boring and uninspired.

I need to go listen to Last Splash.

Mountain Battles releases April 8th, 2008. The Breeders perform a free SXSW 2008 show in Austin Saturday, March 15th at Waterloo Park.

1.5 out of 4ADs


sham69 said...

Nice Breeder's flashback post. Couldn't agree more with your assessment of their latest album. I listened to the sample tracks on Amazon a couple days ago...

...the sound of running water is more exciting than most of the tracks on that abomination.

MiseryCreek said...

A cryin' shame...

Anonymous said...

I love reading blog reviews of this album from 4 years ago. Everybody seemed to have expected a Pod 2.0 or Last Splash 2.0. When that didn't happen, they cried about their "bland, horrible" listening experience. This album is good exactly because it's an anti-Breeders Breeders album. But apparently this all flew over your heads at the time.

MiseryCreek said...

I find there to be a difference between self-cosciously deconstructing oneself to, say, destroy a cliche' about oneself. Many bands have done this admirably. Other bands lose their mojo and release shitty records that they put little effort into making with the notion that the cache' of their name brand will carry them through. Given The Breeders history, 4 years ago and now, I think they cheated their fans by delivering a boring, poorly written record. But then maybe it's all just flying over my head.