The Breeders: a review, of sorts

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The Breeders—Fate to Fatal EP

Bags That Rock: Knitting On the Road with Kelley Deal (Lark Books)

fate 2 fatalThe new Breeders EP, Fate to Fatal, was released on April 21, 2009. iTunes offers .99 electronic downloads, but no CDs are being printed. The band issued 1,000 12-inch vinyl pressings of the record, available through their website and selected retail outlets, with sleeves screen-printed by hand, for about $15.00. The covers were designed by artist Chris Glass, who recently crafted the logo for President Obama’s infamous “American Recovery and Investment Act”. With only four tracks, running under 20 minutes in total, the EP is most likely only a teaser for a more expansive release timed for later this year, but you never know until you know when it comes to the Breeders.

 “Fate to Fatal” was recorded at The Fortress in London last year, while the Breeders were touring London in support of Mountain Battles. Tracks two and four, “The Last Time” and “Pinnacle Hollow” were both recorded in Kim Deal’s basement, in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. “The Last Time” also features vocals by Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age); this occasion marks the only time a man’s voice can be heard on an official Breeders recording! Both these tracks function as mirrors of each other; the dissonant guitar of the former is reasserted in the latter, as Lanegan’s laconic vocals are referenced, sparingly, by the Deals on “Pinnacle Hollow”, which itself calls to mind aspects of “Sinister Foxx” from Title TK.

Track three, a cover of Bob Marley’s “Chances Are”, features the dual Deal harmonics that have become a calling-card for the band’s sound in this decade. “Chances Are” is also notable for reuniting them with an old running buddy, the great Steve Albini, who has figured prominently in their careers since helming the decks for Pod nearly 20 years ago. He has also produced their last two albums, helping them apply the “All Wave” concept, where no digital equipment is used in the process of recording and mastering the albums; the approach served to highlight the texture of the arrangements and the beauty of the Deals’ voices, singly, in melodic counterpoint or their exceptional dual harmonics. Fate to Fatal demonstrates that Kim Deal has internalized much of what she surely learned after countless sessions with Albini, as the overall quality of the recording achieves the same standard as the last two albums. Albini’s genius really comes through at higher volumes; whereas some music, especially guitar-based rock, washes out at a certain level, the Breeders stuff retains its clarity.

allwaveInevitably, some of the Deal’s collaborative material is very hard to find, at best; this include a sublime session with Kris Kristofferson, which yielded a cover of “Angel Flying Over the Sea” for the Twisted Willie tribute to Willie Nelson, and an entire album that Kelley Deal recorded—as “The Last Hard Men”—with Jimmy Flemion, former Smashing Pumkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and former Skid Row front-man Sebastian Bach. There were also songs recorded for a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” tribute and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, not to mention at least two entire albums’ worth of Breeders’ tribute material. Unfortunately, all that stuff is out-of-print, for now. One hopes that eventually they are able to make it available for newer fans, the ones working their way backward from Mountain Battles.

Kelley Deal’s own solo recordings get short shrift in the larger Deal discography, mainly because they were released on labels much smaller than 4AD/Elektra, which has released essentially everything that Kim Deal has been involved with—the Pixies, the Breeders and her one-off project, the Amps. She formed a group called Solid State 6000 while in rehab in Minneapolis, releasing an album (Go To the Sugar Altar) and EP in 1996. She changed the name, and the Kelley Deal 6000 released Boom! Boom! Boom! in 1997. This album was an instant classic for the few thousand people who ever got to hear it, and a true gem in the sisters’ larger output. It compares favorably to the Amps’ eponymous 1995 release, which is close to perfect. But this material is also out-of-print.

(It is interesting how, during the extended hiatus between Last Splash and Title TK, Kelley actually did recording than Kim. Indeed, the twins have evolved notably distinct musical personalities as the years progressed. Kelley has a slightly higher-pitched voice, the fine and mellow scotch to the high-end cigar sound of her sister. Again, the “All-Wave” process really helped illuminate these qualities.)

One might not have guessed that, after producing two albums and five EPs in their first five years of existence, the Breeders’ brand would lay almost entirely dormant for five more, nor that their triumphant return in 2001 (with Title TK) would go without follow-up for six. While the individuals within the band have performed and recorded steadily for the better part of three decades, official documentation has been fleeting at times. Kim and Kelley Deal, the twin sisters who first performed as the Breeders in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio in the 1980s, have contributed to hundreds of tracks by some of the most acclaimed musicians of our time, yet they have not quite gotten full credit.

Fate to Fatal is a further indication that those fabled gaps in activity are a thing of the past. The Breeders have toured extensively over the last couple years and maintained the same basic core of musicians with whom the Deals rebuilt their brand a decade ago. As Josephine Wiggs and Jim McPherson moved on during the wilderness years, the classic Breeders lineup was halved; Title TK was thus essentially the debut of an entirely new band with a new sound that only lapped earlier incarnations. Joining the Deals and Steve Albini were guitarist Richard Presley, bassist Mando Lopez and drummer Jose Medeles. Presley was not present at the Fate to Fatal sessions.

You can find dozens of recent Breeders clips online, either at their website or YouTube, including the first video from Fate to Fatal, wherein the phrase “title track” is given a whole new meaning by St. Louis’ Arch Rivals roller-derby team. appearance at Shake-It Records in Cincinnati on April 18 (International Record Store Day) previewing the new material, three days ahead of the official release, and much of the music (though quality varies) from “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, May 15-17. Landing the coveted spot hosting that festival—which included X, J-Zone, Bon Iver, Gang of Four and Heartless Bastards—signified the band’s relevance to the current indie scene.

Another recent development of note is the release of a book by Kelley Deal in 2008. Bags That Rock: Knitting on the Road with Kelley Deal was published out of Asheville by Lark Books (a division of Sterling Publishing, based in Canada). Its 127 oversized pages document Deal’s prevailing non-musical passion—crocheting. It seems kind of random, but Deal’s interest is sincere, and her talent for this most gentle art is obvious. The book functions as a treatise on the salubrious effects of knitting on the mind and spirit, as well as a how-to guide for making 20 of her own designs for yourself. You could purchase them through KelleyDeal.net, but that site is defunct and there is nothing about selling handbags on the Breeders Digest site.

2010 will mark 20 years since the first Breeders album, Pod, was released by 4AD. At the time, they were known primarily as the side project of Pixies bassist Kim Deal and Tonya Donnelly, who was a member of Throwing Muses alongside Kristen Hersh before setting out on her own with Belly. With Slint drummer Britt Walford on hand under a number of aliases (including Shannon Doughton on Pod and Mike Hunt on the Safari EP), the Breeders amounted to an alternative rock super-group at a time when such music was becoming the dominant cultural influence in the US and Europe.

Aside from the attention generated by “Cannonball”, however, the Breeders existed well outside the industry radar, a favorite of critics, fans and fellow musicians (most famously Kurt Cobain, who tapped them as the opening act on what ended up being Nirvana’s final American tour) that did solid but unspectacular business with Soundscan and was never subject to the mythmaking machinery of commercial media. MTV devoted a significant amount of air time to the group during their two-year run behind Last Splash, but never picked up the scent after they returned to the music scene with the exceptional Title TK in 2001. Maybe the Deal sisters, then 40, were too old for MTV’s youth-oriented marketing scheme; maybe their fans, who carried the network during its crucial transition from hair metal to gangsta rap, were no longer of that choice demographic.

In any event, neither of the albums released by the Breeders in this decade have garnered the kind of attention they did at their mid-‘90s “peak”, and that’s unfortunate, because the music has been very good. While a Breeders album is sure to have its bland instrumental digressions and occasional throwaway tracks, the Deals’ songcraft has always been extraordinary, easily comparable if not superior to all the stuff that’s come along since they did. If this were still the singles-based industry of a bygone era, the Deals might be among the biggest acts on Earth. At the very least, they would have certainly earned a lucrative living writing songs for others. But as it stands, they will have to settle for being one of the most quietly effective musical organizations of our time, a crucial living link between the century that just ended, and the one that has just begun.

The Deals, during the recording of "Mountain Battles".

The Deals, during the recording of "Mountain Battles".

BreedersDigest.net

sdh666@hotmail.com

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