Many great albums are defined by a singular theme or context, but finally unleashed, Kim Deal feels everything at once on her quintessential band’s debut LP
Even if he prefers to be credited as a ‘recording engineer’ (when he allows himself to be credited by name at all), there are few music producers with as signature a sound as the cavernous thud of Steve Albini’s recording of drum sets.
Sift through enough of the rough 83,000 albums the man has produced, and you’ll notice it’s there, a subterranean Bonham-esque churn that turns up everywhere from Seamonsters to No Pocky For Kitty, from Surfer Rosa to Tweez. It even appears in as wildly disparate guises as grunge-clones Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase and in the man’s later work with instrumental post-rock giants like Mono and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
When Kurt Cobain plotted an abrasive and independent-minded follow-up to the slick Butch Vig polish of Nevermind, Albini was the producer he chose. And Cobain chose him because he produced one of his favorite albums, Pod, the debut from Kim Deal’s The Breeders. At one time, they were a band overlooked as a mere Pixies spinoff. But thirty years on, Pod is still as strange and lingering a listening experience as ever.
By 1989, the creative tension between Deal and Pixies leader Black Francis that had animated and illuminated much of the band’s early work was already beginning to curdle into resentment and spitefulness. As Deal’s role in the band began to gradually diminish, and discouraged from exploring her own songwriting talents with the Pixies, the plucky bassist from the Midwest was already beginning to mull other prospects. One of these was a planned collaboration with fellow 4AD-signee and Throwing Muse Tanya Donnelly, reappropriating the name that Kim and her identical twin sister Kelley had used when performing during their youth in working-class Dayton, Ohio: The Breeders.
Commissioned by 4AD to record their debut full-length the following year, Deal and Donnelly recruited Josephine Wiggs and Britt Walford (from The Perfect Disaster and Slint, respectively) to round out the project’s lineup. Recorded in just ten days in Edinburgh, Pod was warmly received by critics but largely ignored by the buying public. Deal would continue soldiering on with The Pixies until the band’s acrimonious dissolution in 1993, the same year she’d reform The Breeders once more, without Donnelly but this time with her twin Kelley back in action, recording what would be the band’s commercial and MTV breakthrough and most beloved album, Last Splash.
In the ensuing years, Pod has only grown in criticial and listener esteem, partially thanks to Cobain’s praises but also due to Albini’s admission that he considers the album one of his finest works. Pod is a fine showcase for both Albini’s gifts and Deal’s newly-unleashed songwriting fury, having been silenced for too long in The Pixies.
The color-washed and eerily beautiful cover of Pod is typical of the dream-pop and Gothic-tinged releases on the 4AD label at the time courtesy of the late Vaughn Oliver, but it also serves to visually underpin the album’s hazy, haunted atmosphere of feverish desperation and ethereal reckoning. Donnelly is a curiously muted presence on Pod, and it’s easy to see why she decamped to form Belly after the album’s releases Remaining in the shadow of Kim Deal’s suddenly very assertive musical personality would likely have proven impossible. At times, Pod is almost skeletally sparse, a study in space as an instrument in and of itself, breathing sultry air between those thickly-throbbing drums.
The lyrics are elliptical and vague, hinting at overwhelming emotions rather than outright stating them, and thus making said emotions feel far more outsized in the absence of concrete detail. Coy sexuality and irony bleed from every corner of these songs, Deal a woman unchained from her main bandmates’ expectations, free and alive. On Pod’s most flat-out gorgeous song, “Oh!”, Carrie Bradley’s woozy violin stitches threads of yearning and melancholy around Kim’s unearthly wails, her voice at one point rising to an almost-violent-sounding crack. It’s intimate and vulnerable without being diaristic, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
VIDEO: The Breeders perform “When I Was A Painter” on Snub TV, 1990
Elsewhere, “When I Was A Painter” stumbles drunkenly about the studio, a moth desperately trying to escape its imprisonment in a child’s jar. This is disorienting and overwhelming music, carnal without resorting to salacious come-ons or lusty rock poses. In Pod’s foggy delirium is a kind of primitive honesty, laid-bare and scalded with the weight of love, dreams and human manipulations. Moments of absurd background chatter and white-hot feedback lace brazenly through songs that sound immediately conjured into being from a indistinct void. “Isis” is feral, bursting noise, “Hellbound” is nearly psychotically cheerful in contrast to its blackened, disturbing lyrics.
Even the (incredibly brave) Beatles cover here, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is somehow treated both appreciatively and yet without any of the usual wide-eyed reverence a band brings to covering a more famous band (let alone the most famous band). It isn’t disrespectful, just subversive in a way that manages to be adoring all the same. Many great albums are defined by a singular theme or context, but finally unleashed, Deal feels everything at once on Pod, issuing missives that shy away from easy interpretation, dissolving into unquiet mist upon inspection. She’d go on to craft further indelible works, and the Breeders in all their guises have frankly never released anything even close to a dud.
But never again would Deal sound this visceral and writhing, revealing nothing by baring everything, which is perhaps why Albini once referred to it as his ‘truest’ record. ‘It feels exactly the way it was when we were doing it”. And does it ever feel, and feel deeply. Black Francis made a huge mistake.
AUDIO: The Breeders Pod (full album)