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The Breeders

(8 Jun 2008: Theatre of the Living Arts — Philadelphia, PA)

Nostalgia is a frightful little word that conjures up images of better times. It is usually accompanied by rose tinted glasses and a longing for the good ol’ days. If I was to wax poetic, I’d probably start by saying something about ‘sentimental yearning’. In essence, when faced with these notions we often feel compelled to acknowledge that the past was better and wish we could return to a place long gone. It would be easy then, to quickly label the Breeders’ latest tour as a nostalgic return to the 1990s. A time of flannel shirts and Guided by Voices seven inches, My So Called Life and an MTV that actually played music videos. This was, after all, when the band—the Deal sisters (Kim and Kelley) backed by a revolving array of supporting musicians—was in its prime.

The evidence in favor of such a motion is blatantly stuck to the stage by a piece of tape: two thirds of tonight’s set list is culled from albums released in 1995 or earlier. And while all of the band’s songs are energetically received by an enthusiastic crowd, the loudest cheer of the evening erupts during the unmistakably muffled intro to their 1993 hit “Cannonball”. Couple this with a crowd that looks like the early ‘90s might have been their best years and it’s enough to make you forget that Lollapalooza is now a stationary, one-weekend festival and not a roaming carnival of alternative delights. Yet, despite all this evidence to the contrary, in actuality this show was much more than a mere trip down memory lane. The effect, instead, was twofold: it served to showcase that the Breeders’ new songs can clearly be counted alongside their exemplary canon of work, whilst also providing proof that their older tunes have not only stood the test of time, but have been befriended by it. In essence, despite the age of the songs (and the people playing them), this show didn’t sound like 1993.

The freshness of their sound is due, perhaps, to the fact that this is not a rote reunion-based cash-in. The Breeders—unlike front woman Kim Deals’ former band the Pixies—never actually split up. They just happened to go on an unintentional hiatus. After the success of their second album, 1993’s Last Splash, the band became sidetracked by drink, drugs, arrests, and abandoned recordings. The music, however, continued to trickle out. First, via the Amps, a Kim Deal side project that was essentially the Breeders in all but name (hence the three Amps songs played tonight), and several soundtrack contributions. It wasn’t until 2002, though, that the band released its third album, Title TK, and earlier this year, a whopping 18 years after the release of their debut, Pod, the band released only their fourth album, the multifarious Mountain Battles. Like this album title suggests, being a Breeder is an uphill struggle.

It is a struggle they seem to be overcoming, though. The years of silence have only served to heighten the anticipation for their fans. And although tonight’s room is only two-thirds full, sold out shows in New York and Chicago prove that they still have some cache in today’s current musical environment. This is due, mainly, to the aforementioned fact that their songs have aged well. Kim Deal has always eschewed conventional song structures for a more playful, freeform approach that doesn’t necessarily tie them to a specific era or genre. Who else would think to start a song with distorted, muffled, nonsensical cattle call as Kim Deal did on “Cannonball”, before coupling it with the simplistic click clack of drum sticks and a boomeranging bass line? Other older songs, such as “No Aloha” and “Divine Hammer”, still sound as fresh as they first did fifteen years ago. The latter, as cheesy as this sounds, is the aural equivalent of spinning around in a summer meadow, all giddy guitars and soaring harmonies. While the former’s atmospheric opening gives way to silence, before bursting back into life with a heavy dose of slide guitar infused invigoration.

Even better are the songs from Pod, an album that Kurt Cobain claimed changed his life. “Iris” soars and settles like a ship on the sea, Kim hitting the “hour by hour” high notes with ease. While their cover of the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun” (one of three covers they play—they also pay tribute to fellow Dayton, Ohio, bands Guided by Voices and the Tasties) is a deconstructionist treat. The Deal sisters break down the Fab Four’s original to its core elements, dismantling bit by bit, before building it back up into a cathartic effigy.

Their new songs are similarly minimalist and just as striking. “Bang On” stutters along as, atop of stop-start rhythm, Kim Deal intones, “I love no one and no one loves me.”  “Night of Joy” is plinking and plaintive; a narcotic nursery rhyme whose melody sounds more forceful and less floating in the live setting. And Title TK’s closing track “Huffer” utilizes a favorite Kim Deal vocal technique, the wordless “da da da,” and sounds suitably raw and rough around the edges.

While Kim is undoubtedly the front woman, the Breeders’ songs benefit greatly from Kelley’s guitar playing which cuts through each song like a Shakespearean dagger. It’s perhaps telling that the Amps songs, songs that Kelley never played on originally, are devoid of such instrumental intervention and instead utilize chugging garage rock rhythms and caterwauling vocals instead of lead guitar. They open with the Amps’ “Tipp City”, the sisters—augmented by a rhythm section and additional guitar/keyboard player—playing with a youthful exuberance that belies the band’s age. And by the time they finish with the rollicking, surf-guitar sing-a-long of “Saints”, the only sentimental yearning I feel is not for 1993, but a mere 90 minutes ago.

Tagged as: the breeders
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