The Breeders' Last Splash turns 20 and gets the deluxe edition treatment. Is it worth it? It comes down to how much of a fan you are.
Darn, I feel old. You’d think I might have felt this way a couple of years ago when Nirvana’s Nevermind turned 20, but it barely registered a blip with me. The Breeders' Last Splash, on the other hand, turns 20, as it does this year, and I feel like I have to break out the cane and book myself into the retirement home. I’m hard pressed to explain why I feel like I do, because, certainly, Nevermind is much more of a cultural touchstone than Last Splash is, or will ever be, but I think the reason is that some of my high school memories are more wrapped up in Last Splash for one particular reason: I heard it more often in my youthful adventures drivin' (on 9) somewhere.
I never owned the album outright: I borrowed the CD from a friend and wound up making a dub of the record on Side A of a 90-minute blank tape, with enough space left over at the end for a few songs from the group’s 1990 debut, Pod, and put both the remainder of Pod as well as much of the Cannonball CD single onto Side B. And since tapes, and not CDs, tended to travel with me in the parents' car, which only had a cassette deck, I probably listened more to this album on the road than I did Nevermind, which I owned on CD and never bothered to tape. So there’s a real journey that I associate with Last Splash in both the figurative and literal sense. And coming to the album’s 20th anniversary makes me feel particularly aged. I really feel it with this one.
And, now, because Last Splash is 20, it gets the requisite deluxe treatment with all sorts of goodies attached to it. It turns out that the goodies are more of a draw than the actual album itself, at least in the record label’s eyes. For one, this edition of Last Splash has not been remixed or remastered in any way, shape or form, so you’re essentially buying the exact same CD you did 20 years ago. Another thing: the record company personally sent me the bulk of what makes up this release -- a live album called The Stockholm Syndrome, for it was recorded in Sweden in 1994 during the band’s last European tour, an album's worth of BBC Sessions and demos, and a bundling of four EPs or singles from the era in the form of Safari, Cannonball, Divine Hammer and Head to Toe -- as digitally watermarked files, all locked down. However, the label did not include an actual copy of Last Splash: I had to go to another publicist for that, and, of course, it was sent digitally to me sans watermarking. Now, I find this to be rather weird. Does the label just naturally assume critics such as myself already own the record and don’t need it? And even if that were the case, it seems odd that the label wouldn’t send the entire product for review; after all, who knows if this version of Last Splash, as untouched as it may be, actually sounds worse or better than the 1993 edition of the disc. Anyway -- and that’s not meant to sound churlish at the publicists or record label -- it gives the impression that 4AD isn’t seemingly really all that interested in promoting the actual Last Splash LP all over again. What the label does seem interested in, in all of its protectionism, is all of those additional bonuses, which is, one assumes, the reason most fans are going to go out and buy this set.
To that end, I’m going to take the unusual step of talking about the bonus material first before diving into Last Splash. Not that it isn’t an important album: It is, to a degree. In fact, it was listed at No. 64 on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the 1990s list in 2003, and it was the group’s breakthrough, as it went Platinum in the U.S., indicating sales of one million copies. However, it just seems that Last Splash’s legacy is pretty much cemented, and you’re probably wondering if it’s worth it just to pick this set up for the bonus discs. Well, it depends. The four EPs have already been released back in the day, and portions of the live album were made available to the group’s fan club. So, if you’re a rabid fan, you may have a large swath of what’s here in this compendium. The demos album has, of course, not been released previously, and it may be of interest to those who want to see how Last Splash evolved, and evolved it did, but, like most demos albums, it’s probably the sort of thing you might listen to once or twice in curiosity and then ignore. However, if you are a fan of Last Splash and didn’t grab the singles and ephemera back in the day, you might want this as, it turns out, some of the best material didn’t make it to Last Splash but oddly got relegated to B-side status.
And, of course, a little bit of a history lesson is in order here before, um, diving in. The Breeders were initially a side project of the Pixies’ Kim Deal and Throwing Muses' Tanya Donnelly that formed in the late ‘80s after both women went out for a night of drinking and began opining that they needed something to do when their respective bands weren’t on the road or in the studio. It took a couple of years until the Steve Albini-produced Pod appeared and wasn’t a runaway commercial success but was notable in that it actually outsold the Pixies’ offering for that year, Bossanova. However, after recording the Safari EP in 1992, Donnelly left the band, leading Deal to reconfigure the group with a couple of new members. Naturally, after the Pixies imploded in January 1993, Deal’s focus turned to the Breeders, and the group eased its way towards commercial success by opening for Nirvana on the group’s summer 1992 tour of Europe. The Last Splash outing would now notably see Kim’s sister Kelley in tow, despite the fact that Kelley didn’t know how to play guitar and had a particularly long-standing addiction to heroin. Kelley would get arrested in a drug bust in 1994 and did a stint the following year in rehab, a move that blew out any momentum that the group had gathered, particularly around its hit single “Cannonball”, which is now considered to be a grunge-era standard, and the band would go on hiatus for nearly a decade. Anyhow, that just gives you an impression just how ramshackle the group, or the Last Splash edition of the group, really was, despite Kim’s newfound focus on the band.
And if you’re looking for ramshackle, The Stockholm Syndrome is the perfect live document for you. While the band is fairly tight, there’s a certain looseness to be had, too, particularly in Kim Deal’s singing. It sounds as though she’s having trouble remembering the lyrics to the songs, falling behind a beat or two with her vocals. You can surmise from some of the chatter between songs (where Kim extols the virtues of a particular bartender who makes mudslides) that she may have been at some level of intoxication during the performance. She even grumbles at one point that "they promised me if I did this set without making too many mistakes -- which I have done, by the way -- that I’d get more mudslides. So I’m waiting for my new mudslide.” (She also makes a quite humorous remark about the need for mudslides to be served at McDonald's.) And there’s evidence of friction within the band: Bassist Josephine Wiggs makes a quip that shows the band had trouble getting along with Kelley, owing either to her lack of playing ability or substance addiction. “The next song is ‘Saints’ and Kelley’s going to start it ... We hope,” says Wiggs. To that end, The Stockholm Syndrome is a fascinating live document that shows a band going through a particular meltdown. It’s not especially revelatory, but if this was a typical night for the Breeders, then the album has its usefulness in illustrating a group struggling just to keep it together.
In comparison, Demos, Rare Tracks & Sessions gives a peek into the process of making Last Splash and shows just much revision went into the proper album. “New Year” has the distinction of having its introductory section moved to the song’s middle in rough form. And “Grunggae”, the precursor to “Cannonball”, gives an indication that the song was only in fragments when the band took its first stab at it in November 1992. “No Aloha” is given a more rocking form in the demo stage, which shows that the Pixies-esque surf take on the song on the actual record had yet to rear itself yet. So there’s a real sense of evolution to the album presented here, but just as revealing are the four tracks from the BBC Session from July 1993, predating the release of Last Splash by a month. The songs feel more lived in and glossy, showing that the group was constantly working and reworking its material.
Which is odd, too, considering that the version of “Don’t You Love Me Now?” from the Safari EP, feels much more produced than the take that wound up on Last Splash, illustrating a converse side to the group; as much as they were about building up their sound, they were also adept at tearing it down later, possibly in a cop to the grunge movement that the band found itself in the thick of. And these bonus EPs are particular needful, as some of the material outpaces that of which was on Last Splash. For instance, “Cro-Aloha”, a much punkier and more feedback-infused take on “No Aloha”, has always been much more of a favorite with me than the version that surfaced on Last Splash. And the band’s treatment of Aerosmith’s “Lord of the Thighs” is particularly astounding. The group likely didn’t want to include another cover on Last Splash -- Ed’s Redeeming Qualities’ “Drivin’ on 9” already held that spot -- but I’d be darned if the record wouldn't have been a smidge stronger had this been thrown on. Additionally noteworthy is the Head to Toe EP, for its covers of Guided by Voices’ “Shocker in Gloomtown” (the Deal sisters were from Dayton, Ohio, as is Robert Pollard’s band) and Sebadoh’s “The Freed Pig”. The latter cover is actually a bit of a punchline: The Head to Toe EP was produced by Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, and “The Freed Pig” is Lou Barlow’s personal kiss off to Mascis. That’s not to say that these EPs are also filled with some filler: I’ve never really gotten behind “900” in a major way, and the Divine Hammer EP’s version of “Do You Love Me Now?” with off-kilter male vocals provided by Mascis added to the mix doesn’t really do much. Still, these EPs are worthy of examination.
Which, of course, brings us finally to Last Splash proper. I’m going to defer to my bruised and battered copy of Rock: The Rough Guide on this one, as it sums up my feelings about the album: “A listenable 25-minute album padded out with fairly pointless instrumentals ('Flipside', 'S.O.S') and draggy avant-garde mumbles ('Mad Lucas') to give it that classic Pixies’ 15-track, 39-minute format. Still, singles 'Cannonball' and 'Divine Hammer' are excellent pop stuff.” That’s what Last Splash is: a pretty good but not great record. While “Cannonball” (“exactly a dozen different aural effects in the first 57 seconds", as one critic put it) is still compelling after all these years, and songs such as “Saints”, “Divine Hammer”m and the rather ‘60s girl group-esque “Do You Love Me Now?” all hold up as sterling examples of what came out the Alternative Nation period, the problem is there’s also material that, even back in the day, I would press the fast-forward button to get over: “Roi” has a WTF? feel to it, and the aforementioned “Mad Lucas” is simply unlistenable and might be the worst song Kim Deal had a hand in, if not one of the worst songs ever committed to magnetic tape. So Last Splash is one big rollercoaster ride of a record. It has its peaks, and then it has its low points. As a whole, though, it definitely is a journey, a sonic one.
In the bigger picture, is Last Splash a record worthy of the deluxe treatment? To a certain extent, yes. Its highest highs are memorable and serve as fodder for a looser direction than what the Pixies were headed in during the last phase of its career. It’s a baggy collection of grungy songs seemingly inspired by the whole Seattle movement, and the fact that one of the band’s members couldn’t really play her instrument well gives it that soaked-in D.I.Y. feel. However, the record is hardly a classic, as it does have its share of pitfalls. Still, as my first paragraph pointed out, there’s a fondness of nostalgia in this record for those who feel time’s elastic band push and pull -- it only seems like yesterday that this album came out, whereas newer records by indie rock acts feel as though they could have been released much longer ago than that. Not in terms of sound necessarily, but there’s that feeling with Last Splash that one's youth has flittered away. That makes the record one big love-in for the ‘90s, and it’s entirely understandable in how this record made it to at least one Top 100 of the era’s list. Last Splash offers, indeed, one of the last hurrahs of a certain brand of sound before the imitators and rot set in on the scene. Thus, the record is nearly indispensable, though hardly essential, listening. Do you really need to buy it if your 1993 CD is still in good shape is a question of personal preference and how far you really want to go down a particular rabbit hole of this iteration of the Breeders. Still, I’m fondly wistful for Last Splash and am certainly glad to own a copy of it again (since my cassette dub is now gone), no matter how many publicity hoops I had to jump through to get it. And the extras are relatively good.
Overall, as a package, LSXX is useful if you actually want to go out and make your own version of Last Splash to get over the particularities and weaknesses of the record. As for me, well, I have to go and chase some nosy, no-good children off my virtual lawn now. See you at tonight’s game of Bingo.