Kim and Kelley Deal at 50: Belated Notes

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Kim and Kelley Deal, ca. 1995

Kim Deal was born June 10, 1961 inDayton, Ohio. Her twin sister, Kelley, was born 11 minutes before. Dayton remains their primary base of operations, though you never know where either might be in the world on a particular day. The twins have pursued their own agenda in the music world, and what they may have lacked in ridiculous stacks of cash, they have made up for with a reliable brand name and a loyal fan base that has avidly followed their work for almost 25 years now, in countless incarnations.

For me, the Breeders were my introduction into the music of that era. What was once just called “alternative rock” splintered into shimmering shards of specific sounds that had their own imprimatur. The indie labels stayed afloat despite the most predatory practices of commercial radio and the major labels, which actively colluded to freeze out all kinds of independent and locally-generated content from radio systems and retail outlets alike for years; independent record stores and low-power stations around the country were driven out of business, in favor of big-box retailers and centrally-planned radio systems that used illegal and unethical methods to dominate, for a while.

Luckily, the combination of MTV, public radio and college radio was enough to keep this stuff going long enough for the technology to catch up with the ideas. Now the artists exist on a roughly equal (or at least roughly equalized) playing field. Another key factor was the success of certain artists not only in their own projects, but in advancing the people’s understanding of what music is. The obvious example, in regard to the Deal sisters, is Kurt Cobain (1967-1994). The leader of Nirvana was the most high-profile exponent of that basic DIY ethic he internalized from his studies of punk music, and he put those values to work on behalf of his peers.

The man was vastly more intelligent than he generally gets credit for. He wasn’t just an expert on the pantheon of modern rock music to that point, besides aspects of folk and blues, he’d put those ideas to work. It’s almost unthinkable that there wasn’t some degree of calculation to the band’s sound, at least subconsciously; he knew what fans of the future wanted to hear, because he was one of those fans himself. That much is clear from the albums; subsequent bootlegs and box-sets have fleshed out the body of Cobain’s experimentation. Much of his actual methodology was simply adapted from other sources then combined to create a synthesis of sorts.

He was always not only gracious about his influences, but actively effusive in putting them over to his fans and in the media. Cobain was an early master of what GQ magazine might once have called the “symbiotics of dress”. He is commonly associated with flannel shirts, cords and cardigan sweaters, all of which have remained in fashion ever since, but his real trick was using band t-shirts. It was a simple thing, really: He just always made sure he was representing some band he liked whenever he was in a situation where he might be photographed or videotaped, which was pretty much all the time for a little over two years. It may not have been deliberate, at first, or consciously articulated; it was part of his personal aesthetic, and he was rigorous about not being too altered by fame. But there are stories of photo shoots where he would refuse to button his shirt, so that whatever shirt he was wearing would end up on, say, the cover of Rolling Stone, or on “Saturday Night Live”. He wasn’t the first person to do that, surely, but he raised it to the high hipster art form it has now become.

Cobain famously derided his hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as being his failed attempt to write a Pixies song; it makes sense that he would also be a proponent of the Breeders. He was once quoted to that effect: “The main reason I like them is for their songs, for the way they structure them, which is totally unique, very atmospheric. I wish Kim was allowed to write more songs for the Pixies, because ‘Gigantic’ is the best Pixies song, and Kim wrote it.” The Breeders opened for Nirvana numerous times, including his last US tour before his tragic and unnecessary death in April 1994. If he were alive today, he would probably be very pleased with the way things turned out for music and the musicians he liked.

The “Breeders” brand-name, which is of course gay slang for heterosexuals, dates back to around 1986, when the Deals were a 25 year-old duo act making their way in the Dayton music scene. Almost nothing exists, in terms of recordings from that period, other than a cover of “I Believe In Miracles” that gets right at the sweetness of their vocal style. The Deals remain among the most prolific exponents of two-part harmony in modern music, a characteristic that helped define their first album, Pod (1990) and which has stayed a vital part of their tool-kit. Over the past 20 years, as the sisters have matured and their music become even more idiosyncratic, their harmonies have helped make their later albums undisputed classics of 21st century indie rock.

After Kelley Deal’s drug bust, and the court-ordered rehab that ended the intial Breeders push in the mid-‘90s, it was generally assumed that the Deals’ days as a single creative unit were gone for good. Kim formed a group called The Amps, releasing Pacer in 1995; The Kelley Deal 6000 released Go To the Sugar Altar in 1996 and the seminal Boom Boom Boom!—which is probably the single-best non-Breeders record that either Deal produced—in 1997. I recall posing the question to Kelley Deal when her band played the old Moto Lounge inJacksonville that year (where another all-time favorite, the Crustaceans, opened up), and she had no idea, either.

Rumors of a possible return, and their fans’ desperate desire for a new Breeders record, lingered for over five years, until it seemed like the Deals’ place in history was as just one of the many one-hit wonders of that decade, “Cannonball” and a bunch of stuff that only hardcore fans knew or cared anything about. But then, out of nowhere, the Breeders returned with a vengeance, making up for lost time and reestablishing themselves in an industry that had changed dramatically in the intervening years. The phrase “Title TK” basically means the project has no title yet, but one will be added later; it was, in essence, a perfect title for an album that almost everyone in the world thought would never see the light of day. It was released in May 2002, at a time when cultural matters were widely overshadowed by politics and war.

For me, it was tonic for tumultuous times. By the time I had the pleasure of seeing them perform live in Chicago in 2002 (where I actually got to shake their hands, Kelley’s for the second time), the Breeders had coalesced into their contemporary form. The old rhythm section of bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim McPherson (both of whom were key to the visionary sonic success of “Cannonball”) had moved on during the band’s extended hiatus. Their replacements were Mando Lopez and Jose Medeles, bandmates who’d met the Deals in Los Angeles, and third guitarist Cheryl Lyndsey. Their professionalism took a lot of pressure off the sisters, who were now able to focus on their voices and the actual songwriting. The writing on Title TK was some of the best of the era.

The Deal Sisters, recording "Mountain Battles", 2007.

The Mountain Battles LP (2008) and the Fate 2 Fatal EP (2009) were hardly as accessible as Title TK, but continued the band’s hot streak with all the components Breeders fans had come to expect: cute, catchy sing-along tracks replete with those golden harmonies, rendered with a fidelity of their “No Wave” system. My most salient thoughts on these recordings were rendered in a review elsewhere, but I’ll note here that, like Pod and Title TK, the latter material has held up quite well.

It’s unclear when then next Breeders album will be released, or even how much has been recorded so far. But, unlike in the ‘90s, one can rest easily knowing that there will surely be another album in the next couple years, and hopefully many more. The fact that the Deals are still making compelling, credible rock and roll as they enter their sixth decade seems almost miraculous. But, then again, Sonic Youth never stopped; neither have the Beastie Boys. If the Breeders approach this new decade anything like how they approached the last one, it should be really interesting to watch. So, even though this comes two months late, Happy Birthday to Kim and Kelley Deal!

sheltonhull@gmail.com; August 16, 2011

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3 responses »

  1. “Almost nothing exists, in terms of recordings from that period, other than a cover of “I Believe In Miracles” that gets right at the sweetness of their vocal style.”

    I have been trying to track this down and found a video of a live version but can’t find a studio recording anywhere. Don’t suppose you know any site where that song can be found on mp3? (Legally or otherwise!)

  2. Pingback: “Last Splash” at 20: The Breeders Ride Again | Money Jungle Safari

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