Saluting one of the most enduring albums of the alt-rock era
The promise of the Breeders as a band with two strong songwriters fell by the wayside, but their best album was on the way.
Last Splash, released 30 years ago today, was the biggest hit of the band’s career. It yielded the song that was the closest to getting them in the Billboard Top 40 — “Cannonball” — as well as a host of other songs that remain staples of their live shows.
The Breeders were originally just a side project, an outlet for Kim Deal’s songs since Black Francis kept a tight grip on the Pixies’ material.
Pod, released in 1991, was recorded in a week. It had a particularly askew feel, full of familiar elements, just off-kilter. Kim Deal was clearly enjoying the opportunity to have an outlet for her songs.
The Pixies came to a rather impersonal end. The story was that Deal and drummer David Lovering were informed by fax, although Kim later told the Guardian that she found out from her twin sister Kelley during sessions for Last Splash.
The Breeders’ lineup had also changed. The original plan had been for the album to feature more songwriting input from guitarist Tanya Donelly, who’d been wanting an outlet since her opportunities had been few in Throwing Muses. But the combination of Deal already accumulating material and the Pixies’ touring obligations led to an amicable departure. Donelly would soon form Belly, which released their terrific debut Star in February 1993.
Kim kept it in the family to find a replacement. She’d sung with Kelley since they were in grade school.
The vocal chemistry was assured, but Kelley was not a guitarist. At all. She was starting at the ground floor. Kim worked with her on the basics, then she kept learning on the fly during and after making the album.
“A lot of the songs that ended up on Pod are variations of songs that we’d written in the bedroom, so that helped me,” Kelley said in a fan Q&A in the Guardian last January. “Otherwise I didn’t care that I couldn’t play. The emotional element has very little to do with being able to play scales really fast.”
“Cannonball,” their most recognizable song, is yet another example of leaving a mistake in being the right move.
Think of The Mamas and Papas’ “I Saw Her Again”, when a mixing error resulted in Denny Doherty’s false start on the third chorus being audible. Producer Lou Adler liked the sound of it, telling engineer Bones Howe to leave it in.
VIDEO: The Breeders “Cannonball”
In the Breeders’ case, it happened when bassist Josephine Wiggs was a little off on the opening riff. “It’s a really long slide — I just didn’t go quite far enough,” she told Spin in 2013. “And because I was the only person playing, I didn’t realize I was playing the wrong note until the guitars came in — ‘Oh, I’m playing in the wrong key.’ So of course on the next riff, I adjusted it. It’s hilariously deceptive, because you think it’s gonna be one thing, and then all of a sudden it’s something else. We all thought it sounded cool. We left it like that.”
It was titled “Grunggae” as a demo, because Deal thought its structure was, in essence, Seattle meets Jamaica. In its final form, the driving riff also sounded like the closing one from the Live at Leeds version of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as seen in a funhouse mirror.
Deal coos lines like “I know you, little libertine” and “I’ll be your whatever you want” in the verses, but the real sugar rush hits in the chorus, kicked in by Jim MacPherson’s drums taking off and the juxtaposition of the sweetly sung “in the shade” against Deal, through her brother Kevin’s harmonica mic, screaming “Want you cuckoo cannonball.” And it sounds for all the world like she’s singing “Why you little fucker/Why you little” through a megaphone.
The song got as high as number 44 on the pop charts, but was apparently too weird to get any higher when the likes of Celine Dion and Ace of Base were at the top. It did spend a couple of weeks at No. 2 on the modern rock chart (behind Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”).
Additionally, it was named single of the year by a number of publications, including sitting atop that year’s Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll. Robert Christgau wrote the song “either alternative’s ‘Horse With No Name’ or the revenge of the shambolic — proof the garage lives creatively, commercially, and in all the erogenous zones in between.”
For her part, Deal wasn’t expecting much response, telling MOJO in 2013, “Did we record a song that opened with me saying, ‘Check 1-2,’ and then loads of vocal feedback from my brother’s harmonica mike, and think, ‘This is destined for radio?’ That was the sort of thing that didn’t get you played on the radio then. We thought no one would play it.”
For all the Breeders’ inherent weirdness, it wasn’t as if Kim Deal always shunned hooks. On their 1992 Safari EP, they’d dusted off a cover of the Who’s should-have-been-a-hit “So Sad About Us.” And even with Black hoarding the songwriting space, it was Deal who sang and co-wrote the Pixies’ catchiest song. “Gigantic,” the lone single off 1988’s Surfer Rosa, was a playfully lusty earworm inspired in part by fantasies concerning an attractive bike messenger Deal had seen.
She went back to that territory on “Divine Hammer,” which is as sweet as it is horny. Whatever the libidinous intentions, it comes across as more playful than sleazy in its delivery of lines like, “You’re the rod/I’m the water” (one way to make a last splash). Even now, 30 years later, that repeated hook of “one divine hammer” sung by Kim and Kelley Deal brings a smile.
VIDEO: The Breeders “Saints”
“Saints,” also quite catchy, added a healthy dose of dripping sarcasm. Kelley sang “Summer’s ready” in the chorus like she’s like happy to be there before Kim answers “Summer is ready when you are,” drawling out “are” with a smirk Lennon would have approved of.
Kim’s distaste for summer heat, even if it means getting to hang out at the fair, is something this reviewer most definitely shares with her. Sometimes, it’s too damn hot and sticky for funnel cake.
The catchiness wasn’t limited to the singles. “Invisible Man” leans into heavy guitars, but it’s also full of a plaintive ache and frustration lyrically and in the solo. A hammer can indeed be divine, but it can also be nice to have something that’s easier to hold onto for the long term than Vaseline Jell-O.
Last Splash was released in that period where alternative music still felt alternative even as it crossed over. Kurt Cobain was that guy who always caught shit from the jocks. Kim and Kelley grew up not far from the Air Force base where their father worked. They were the cheerleader jocks who weren’t quite wired to be the Stepford popular kids, both them engaged in the late ’70s high school shenanigans of smoking, drinking and recreational drugs, all the while seeking out music beyond the playlists of Dayton radio stations.
Kim told Les Inrockuptibles in 1995, “Kelley had a girlfriend in California who sent us tapes of James Blood Ulmer, the Undertones, Costello, the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie… In Dayton, we felt like we were living in Russia, that those tapes were our most valuable asset. Precious, the only link with civilization.”
This was the period where the uncool could be cool by their very uncoolness, the opportunity for a triumph of the weird.
And the Breeders were not above being weird. “No Aloha” is mostly chugging rhythm guitar and bendy pedal steel (Kelley’s first time trying it). Kim gets off the line about the demands for motherhood (more relevant now in a post-Roe U.S.): “Saw it on the wall/ ‘motherhood means mental freeze’/Freezeheads!”
The expected move would be to have that part shorter, or the full-band segment longer. But, no, the latter makes up less than half the song’s 2:07 runtime.
“New Year” is similarly short, changed for the better in the studio. The demo version starts with the fast part, then goes slow before getting loud again. On Last Splash, they draw out the slow part to begin, then explode, upping the tempo, throwing in guitar noise that could be a hat tip to the cacophonous parts of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play.”
There’s some New England alt-rock familiarity to “Hag,” which sounds like Throwing Muses run through the Deal filter. Instead of Kristin Hersh’s spooky intensity, Kim delivers lyrics like “Hag/Coastal cutthroat/You dirty switch, you’re on again” as if she’s just tired of your shit.
It’s Kelley who got to sing the most sneering putdown in the quick “I Just Want to Get Along”. Having her sing lines like, “If you’re special/Why aren’t you dead?” certainly make it easier to open the target’s identity since she wasn’t the one who was allegedly recently cut loose via fax.
Last Splash is as much about feel as anything, with Kim making impressions with particular lines than lyrics as a whole. Not every song is constructed as you’d expect, but the twists make sense. There are also plenty of detours along the way.
The instrumentals take different paths. “Flipside” is Beach Blanket Breeders, Frankie and Annette not included. The surging “S.O.S.”, later sampled in The Prodigy’s 1998 hit “Firestarter”, sounds like the theme song for a Gen X private detective show.
They stop in a country bar for a last-call cover of “Drivin’ on 9”, adding some twang to Ed’s Redeeming Qualities’ folk, aided by Carrie Bradley, the violinist on the original.
“Do You Love Me Now?” pulls a little musical rope-a-dope. Kim’s deadpan vocals early threaten to undercut the sadness. Then the guitars get more emphatic and she and Kelley team up to sing, “Come back to me right now/Come on, come on”, as indifference gives way to probably bad idea pleading.
Weirdness completely took over at points. “Mad Lucas” dated back to the Pod sessions, when the band was asked by the BBC to come up with some music for a series about British eccentrics.
For example, there was a man in a pub who was told he looked like Andrew Lloyd Webber, quit his job to work as a professional lookalike only to not get any calls. During a 1993 interview on Triple J radio in Australia, Kim quoted bassist Josephine Wiggs as quipping, “Of course, he didn’t get any calls, because no one wants a double of Andrew Lloyd Webber. They don’t even want the real Andrew Lloyd Webber.”
The Breeders’ inspiration went farther back than memories, alone in the moonlight, of a would-be impersonator. They chose James Lucas, known colloquially as “Mad Lucas”, whose mental illness was exacerbated by his mother’s death. Picture latter day Howard Hughes in Victorian England, if Hughes had been a slave owner.
The longest song on Last Splash, it lopes along slowly as if Lucas were limping slowly through the streets of Hertfordshire rather than living exclusively in his kitchen.
Kim, sounding as if she were mic’d underwater, sings lyrics that don’t address how Lucas’ family made its money, the slave owner imprisoned in his own head. Rather, they’re about how he became a local celebrity as a hermit who would talk to visitors, children, the poor or well-known folks who he’d talk to through an iron grille in the kitchen window. The “eternal providence” line? That came from Charles Dickens, who, displaying an 1800s understanding of mental illness, used it in basically yelling at Lucas to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Dickens clearly had never pondered a theory of irony.
“Roi” is nearly an instrumental, with Wiggs and MacPherson swapping bass and drums. The only lyrics, “Raw: where the shot leaves me gagging for the arrow”, appear twice (thrice, if you count the 42-second reprise at the end of the album). It’s mostly riff, with some instrumental side trips that the Dayton teens on acid the Deals knew (and sometimes were) would have dug. Space rock in an Ohio garage instead of a spaceship.
The Breeders were set to have a really good run. Last Splash’s creativity resonated. The album went platinum and the group secured a Main Stage slot on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour.
The Breeders’ chance to build off their momentum fell by the wayside. Kelley’s drug use became a problem. Her heroin use, which picked up on the tour, had her in a state where she was unable to play when work started on the third album. Later that year, she was arrested for possession, eventually going to rehab rather than jail.
Kim’s problems, meanwhile, centered around alcohol. What could have been the Last Splash follow-up turned into a Kim album as The Amps. It sold dismally with the tour for it being a fraught experience. It led Kim and MacPherson not speaking to each other for several years.
Attempts to record an album in 1997 yielded about as much in the way of usable results as lighting a sizable pile of cash on fire.
Both Deals eventually got clean. Kelley’s been been for 14 years now. Kim stopped drinking in late 2002. “I just got to the point where it didn’t matter how many beers I drank, I wasn’t getting drunk anymore. That’s a good time to stop,” Kim told the Sydney Morning-Herald in 2018.
The band’s only recorded three albums, none of which equaled Last Splash, in the last 30 years — 2002’s Title TK, 2008’s Mountain Battles and 2018’s All Nerve. But neither did they embarrass themselves on them. That’s especially true with All Nerve, the first album since Last Splash with the classic lineup.
There were also painfully personal reasons as well. Kim moved back to Dayton in 2002 after her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis to be a caregiver.
The Pixies also came back into the picture, starting with well-received reunion shows in 2004, but she left them for good in 2013.
For her part, Deal often said that she was fine with Black Francis having control over the bulk of the band’s songwriting. Still, there’s also a kernel of truth to what Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain told Melody Maker in 1992, “I wish Kim was allowed to write more songs for the Pixies, because Gigantic is the best Pixies song and Kim wrote it.”
But one lead singer’s departure was another one’s gain. Kim was able to focus fully on the Breeders. Last Splash, with help of band chemistry that hadn’t fallen apart yet, was the welcome result.
Odd, but never off-putting, it meshed the comforting and the disturbing. It was full of moments that stuck in the brain, even if they weren’t precisely engineered to. But it was also less haphazard than it appeared. One of alternative rock’s most enduring albums, you can still feel them giddy with possibility, in their “Yeah, that sounds cool, keep it in” way. It was an all too brief moment where the outcasts, the rebels from the Midwestern rec room became the popular kids.
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