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 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.
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.