Tag Archives: Josephine Wiggs

“Last Splash” at 20: The Breeders Ride Again

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Original cover of “Last Splash”, 1993.

Full disclosure: From a personal and professional perspective, there is no way to overestimate the significance of the Breeders in my own life and career. If music is a drug, and there have been studies suggesting that the two affects part of the brain in similar ways, then the Breeders were my marijuana, my gateway drug—at least, to the circles in which they ran and rotated. As such, I was thrilled to hear that the original lineup—Kim and Kelley Deal, Josephine Wiggs and Jim McPherson—was reuniting this year to tour in support of the 20th anniversary of their most well-known album, 1993’s Last Splash (4AD/Elektra).

The "classic" lineup. Front: Jim McPherson and Josephine Wiggs. Back: Kelley and Kim Deal.

The “classic” lineup. Front: Jim McPherson and Josephine Wiggs. Back: Kelley and Kim Deal.

The album, which was a touchstone of the “alternative rock” scene of that era, has been re-released in stunning new form by 4AD’s Vaughan Oliver, who’s been established as a master of album cover design and packaging for a quarter-century. The new “LSXX” version contains 46 tracks, spread across three CDs for a very reasonable price of $23; the same material is also available on a sumptuous seven-LP box set for $90—worth every penny for a serious fan. Both versions of the box set contain not only the entire original Last Splash album, but other key documents from that time, including: the full 16-track Stockholm concert that was previously only available in truncated form through the Breeders Digest fan club; 14 tracks recorded in settings ranging from demos and BBC/Peel sessions to guest appearances on compilations like the epochal No Alternative; and all four of the four-song EPs that came immediately before and after the album—1992’s Safari and 1994’s Head To Toe, in addition to the singles for “Cannonball” and “Divine Hammer”. There’s also a 24-page booklet.

Last Splash LSXX

LSXX, interior…

At this writing, the box-set is in pre-order; the CDs start shipping on May 14, but the vinyl doesn’t go out until June/July. For me, as a longtime fan who’s not gotten my copy yet—although “fan” seems imprecise; the old wrestling term “mark” seems more appropriate—just reading through the tracklist brings back fond memories of not only the music itself, but of the often extreme lengths I once went to in order to obtain this material in the good ol’ days before the Internet, before e-commerce, eBay, Amazon and automated shipping.

For me, a Breeders run usually meant a trip to historic Five Points in Jacksonville, the longtime hub of my city’s alternative/indie scene before the action began diversifying into downtown and Springfield while crossing over into other genres. Last Splash was a hit, so it wasn’t necessary to hit up spots like Now Hear This!, since it could be had at the mall, but I got it from there anyway; it was my first trip to that neighborhood, and I also bought the excellent Copacetic album by Velocity Girl that day, starting a relationship with the area (where I now live) that will always persist in some form or another.

Now, getting hold of the EPs was a chore involving phone calls, special orders and the kind of research I only put now into corrupt politicians or would-be business partners. In the ‘90s, my resource for this stuff was a place called the Theory Shop, on Park St. It was owned by the Faircloth sisters; they also owned the legendary Beaches club Einstein-A-Go-Go, where many of the era’s top alternative bands performed and where a whole generation of artists, musicians, writers, fans and entrepreneurs first met each other, slowly knitting a social fabric that now stretches across most of this country. (A lot of those shows were taped, but sadly I’ve never heard any of it; it probably comprises an indispensable auditory document, and hopefully it sees light someday.) They were geniuses for special orders; if they didn’t have it, they could get almost anything, and usually for far less than one was willing to pay. They had the music, and certain curios that are now almost impossible to find: autographed posters, signed Breeders tube socks, even promo copies of the album on green vinyl.

The 1990s were an especially explosive time in the cultural development of a nation that is always pushing hard toward the future, and a big part of that era was what was then called “alternative music”. The term has fallen out of favor now, even retrospectively, as that music’s pervasive impact ultimately overwhelmed whatever outsider pretentions once existed. But, at the time, it was the perfect description not only of the actual music itself, but also of the intent that drove the many artists, producers, record executives, journalists and fans who were involved in its production and proliferation, starting with the man who was, for a time, at the center of the entire music world: the late, great Kurt Cobain. Had he not existed, a significant portion of the last 20 years of music history would quite possibly have never happened, and that fact is of special relevance in regard to the subject at hand.

Last Splash was officially released on August 31, 1993, but audiences were already primed, myself included. I was 15 back then. I was mostly into jazz and rap music; my tastes in rock and roll at that time were strictly limited to AC/DC, Queen, Hendrix and Guns and Roses; I recall enjoying GNR’s Use Your Illusion double-album, which I bought on cassette, way more than any decent human being should, absurdly, decadently, obnoxiously hyperbolically brilliant as it was. (To this day, I’m still kinda sad that the Axl Rose/Bob Guccione, jr. fight never actually happened; if it ever does, someone please inform me.) The first CD I ever bought was the self-titled debut by Rage Against the Machine, and I enjoyed it, but I was in no way culturally-inclined toward the rock music of that time, not at that point. My favorite rock band then was Led Zeppelin and, as much as I love the Breeders, they remain a very close second.

Many of my peers, of course, came from backgrounds were they were able to experience the genesis of what would evolve into “alternative music” holistically, so the effect of its rise was perhaps not as game-changing as it would be for. At that time, I had no idea what had been percolating in the New York, or Boston, or Athens. Seattle? Other than it being the estranged home of Hendrix, I knew nothing about the rock scene there, or anywhere else, until Kurt Cobain got the big push and methodically began programming names into the collective database of pop-culture. Once he started wearing certain t-shirts, covering certain songs and hiring certain bands to open for his band or sit in with them, I, like most people, spent the rest of the decade playing catch-up to what he had already internalized and regurgitated as the music of Nirvana.

Cobain’s infamous description of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as his failed attempt to write a Pixies song was to the eternally-corrupt American music industry what then-president George Bush’s declaration of “a New World Order” was to geopolitics. It was, in both cases, the start of a new era in mass-consciousness, a new formulation of the context in which we all exist. To be a Nirvana fan meant you had to listen to all these bands you’d often never heard of, because you knew their work was crucial to the development of the stuff you like. It’s like how the British Invasion forced mainstream America to take a second look at the Blues, or how hip-hop helped spur a new appreciation of older black musicians ranging from Clyde Stubblefield to Roger Troutman—or, for that matter, how the “New World Order” concept became the global context in which we placed the many obscure, localized conflicts and atrocities that have happened in the subsequent years. While it is entirely coincidental that Bush made the relevant remarks to a special joint-session of Congress on September 11, 1991—which happened to be the day after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released, it’s fitting.

By the time Last Splash made its big splash, the Nirvana push was almost two years old, and the; Cobain would be dead within seven months of its release-date, but a significant portion of the time he had left was spent in various ways of giving the Breeders the rub. They were one of the opening acts on Nirvana’s last American tour, and they got perhaps the biggest exposure of their careers when they opened for Nirvana on MTV’s (pre-taped) New Year’s Eve special in 1993, playing the two lead singles from their album, “Cannonball” (released August 9) and “Divine Hammer” (released October 25).

“Cannonball” was released as a single 22 days before the album, which eventually went platinum based largely on that song. To this day, it remains their best-known song, and one of the more recognizable musical documents of that era. It’s been so ubiquitous, in fact, such a pure and perfect song, that it will always threaten to overshadow the depth, diversity and dynamism of their other stuff—a legacy that jumps genres and hews to no particular pre-defined aesthetic. For as the Deal sisters made their way through the business in those years, they did so as themselves; it’s not that their music conformed to people’s expectations, but that the expectations conformed to the music. That seems a trait they shared with Cobain, a trait he recognized, appreciated and did his very best to encourage, on- and off-stage. (Some seven months before Last Splash was released, Cobain praised Pod as one of his favorite albums ever in an interview with Melody Maker; “It’s an epic that will never let you forget ypur ex-girlfriend”, he said, and he was right.)

Cobain was neither the first nor last artist within those circles to meet a tragic, premature and, frankly, suspicious end, but because it was him, the overall effect was much, much worse. Culturally, Cobain’s death was later book-ended by the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, but many great talents fell in the interim. The summer of 1994 was a summer of death for the musicians who knew him most closely, many of whom took their own demons on the road, touring through grief and uncertainty. Among the casualties of that brutal year were the Breeders—that is, the version of the band that recorded Last Splash. After Kelley Deal was allegedly caught signing for a FedEx package of heroin, virtually all of the band’s forward momentum to that point was stopped cold as a corpse. She went to rehab, Wiggs and McPherson left to pursue their own projects, and Kim Deal simply remained Kim Deal—the one constant in all of this. Despite all of the great work they’ve done since then, separately and together, they would never again ascend to a commercial plateau anywhere near their peak, which sucks, but life moves fast, and the fickle tastes of the pop-music business move even faster.

The sisters Deal and their colleagues continued recording their own projects for the rest of the ‘90s and then, like a phoenix of sorts, the Breeders was reborn in May 2002. That Title TK happened at all was viewed by some as miraculous, and by others as a sign of the apocalypse, but not even their most hard-core fans (and I count myself among them, maybe even at the tippy-top of the list) would have expected the album to be as unbelievable epic as it was. It’s not just that it was a good album by the Breeders; it was an amazing album by a version of the Breeders that did not exist prior to that point. With its antecedents in the Deals’ solo work in those frustrating years between Breeders albums, the difference between Title TK and Last Splash, in terms of both form and content, was as dramatic as that between Last Splash and Pod. Aside from the vocals and a couple little musical tricks, the three albums might as well have been by three completely different bands, and to a certain extent they were.

It’s now been over a decade since the revamped Breeders lineup strolled into the new century, recording two full-length albums, releasing two albums and an EP in that time while touring the world and landing high-prestige gigs like Coachella and All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP). Despite this new era of success, some fans remain nostalgic for the “classic” version of the band, with Wiggs and McPherson. With the new lineup gelled and seasoned, it seemed unlikely that would ever happen, but as one has come to expect from the Breeders, anything can happen. As such, the Deal/Deal/Wiggs/McPherson version of the band will reunite and tour this year, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the record that made them. I’ve not seen them play in a decade, and I just realized I’ll have to miss their show in Atlanta on May 15; it irritates me beyond words, but that feeling is well-surpassed by the overall joy I feel, just knowing that the Deals are not only alive and well, but thriving. And as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of their biggest commercial success, it’s really more like a celebration of a scene they helped create—a scene that now holds a dominant position across the scope American culture. As it turned out, with Last Splash, the Breeders were just dipping their toes into the water.

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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