“My heroes don’t wear their baseball caps on backwards.” This from Billy Corgan, when his hubris was at its most palatable if not subversively fetching; specifically, during the Smashing Pumpkins set at Lollapalooza 1994 in Philadelphia. Courtney Love had just shocked the world by taking the stage as a surprise guest, partly in lieu of the Nirvana set that was never to be (Cobain having pulled the plug on the band’s spot in the lineup a day prior to his death) and partly, it can’t be argued, as a weeping widow’s power play. I remember this. I remember finding my friend in the medical tent, his head being attended to after suffering a gash from someone’s muck-caked clog that had aggressively taken flight, this ill-chosen footwear a rocket of mosh pit detritus. There were stitches during the Breeders’ set, the songs of Last Splash sewn into this scene of injury, fraternity and rambunctious chaos. “I’m okay. Let’s go,” he said, and that’s how we all felt that day, I think.
This was the time and place for the Breeders at their most potent, 1993 seeing the release of commercial thunderclap Last Splash after a brief but restless history for a band that started out as a side project. Overshadowed and undervalued by Black Francis, Kim Deal splintered off from the Pixies in 1990 – a dynamic that would replicate itself when founding Breeders member Tanya Donelly (taking time off from Throwing Muses) walked away from Deal and her alpha tendencies after recording their Safari EP in 1992. The two had a light sister/dark sister reciprocity, a harmonic interplay replaced by the inclusion of actual twin sister Kelley on Last Splash.
Kim Deal didn’t need a counterbalance; as exceptional as their work on debut album Pod was, Donelly is not missed on Last Splash. The tang of Deal’s voice – it’s like eating a jagged shard of nectarine – rifles through all spaces and inhabits many personalities. “No Aloha”’s underwater reverb and clear, unhurried vocals lend lines like “Saw it on the wall/ Motherhood means mental freeze” an unsettling certainty. She is vacantly deadpan in “I Just Wanna Get Along” (“If you’re so special/ Why aren’t you dead?”) and wicked sibilance in “Saints” (“Seeing Sooey and saints at the fair”) but it’s not all crustiness and bad attitude. “Divine Hammer” is a major key pop song aiming for achievable righteousness, and traveling ditty “Drivin’ On 9” has Deal crooning like a relaxed jukebox, ukuleles and strings providing a little exit music for the onlooking birds on a wire.
But it was the aptly named “Cannonball” that blew a hole through the alternative music scene, this single credited with the popularity (read: salability) of Last Splash, pushing its commercial returns beyond any of the Pixies’ previous albums. And why not? This is a song that hooks and grabs; for three and a half minutes, it kidnaps you. Blinking feedback, mic checks and Deal’s own foghorn vocals drop out as drummer Jim MacPherson clicks out a pattern on what could easily be taken for the aluminum legs of a cheap auditorium chair. The bass line pops, slides and slurs to an ambush key change as guitar licks fill in and the so-good squeal of distortion clear-cuts a path to the first verse: “Spitting in a wishing well/ Blown to hell/ Crash/ I’m the last splash.” Riffs seem to ricochet around – quick snare shots and muted guitar strokes call back to each other – while the sisters harmonize coolly, Kim dipping into low tones: “I’ll be your whatever you want.” How did Kim Deal come to be an offbeat sex symbol? This.
One thing: do not overlook “New Year.” Pixies devotees, this is a thick rope tied to Black Francis. Here is that familiar animus, now Deal’s, ominous and exhilarating. Deal embraces a God complex (“I am the sun/ I am the new year/ I’m the way home”) and between verses, the band competes to be bigger than her. Guitars ramp up and double up while underneath it Deal intones a mystical arpeggio. Everything shimmies like it’s about to explode, and randomized high pitched pricking sounds like the guitar’s strings are glassine witch hairs spontaneously peeling off of their pegs. This intensification of noise still makes me want to rip my life apart. It feels like a glorious detonation.
It’s easy to pooh-pooh the more heavily instrumental tracks (and critics did), especially in light of a band that is so deftly verbal. Although “Le Roi” presses at over four minutes, it’s the drip-along shuffle of “Mad Lucas” that jeopardizes the energy on the back half. Best is “Flipside,” a quick hop onto the longboards, this surf rock homage well placed between Last Splash’s slurry version of “Do You Love Me Now?” and the hard-ass disinterest of “I Just Wanna Get Along,” Deal’s accusatory flatness cloning the delivery of that other Kim from Sonic Youth. This isn’t imitation but rather simultaneous expression: elsewhere on the album, “Saints” is a track that holds a mirror to kinderwhore-era Hole.
After almost a decade of silence, and after rehab stints and various side projects of other side projects, the Breeders released Title TK in 2002 and Mountain Battles thereafter in the spring of 2008. Critical accomplishments both, and yet likely relegated in the present to a few songs of the encore portion of the Breeders’ upcoming Last Splash reunion tour. But that’s what we want, and it’s okay to admit it. 1993 was 20 years ago after all; it would be fun to be there again. They say there’s no going back, but I think time, in some ways, waits for you. The Breeders tell us this in “Saints”: “Summer is ready when you are.”