Regardless of her smoker’s hack or the fact that she colors in her grey hairs with a black Sharpie, Kim Deal remains one of the sexiest women in rock, and it’s all in her voice.
A voice that, for 20-some-odd years, has been more crucial to the alternative rock universe than Courtney Love, Cat Power, and Jemina Pearl combined. A voice that made you really wish she sang lead on more Pixies songs than she did. A voice that, when combined with initially Throwing Muses/Belly chanteuse Tonya Donnelly and later her twin sister Kelley, creates one of the most heavenly sounds to emerge from the late ’80s/early ’90s as The Breeders.
And unfortunately, it’s a voice we don’t really get to hear as often as we would have liked in the 20 years since Deal and Donnelly had initially formed the group and 15 years since the release of the Breeders’ breakthrough album Last Splash. For those of us in the Lollapalooza generation who fell hook, line, and sinker to the infectious nature of Last Splash and its onslaught of irresistible singles, including “Hag”, “Divine Hammer”, and, of course, “Cannonball”, there were just as many who were split down the middle on its frustratingly long-awaited 2002 follow-up Title TK, a challenging but no less sublime collection that took the strangest elements of the Breeders sound and expounded upon them, serving as the ultimate f-you to Kim’s hesitant appointment to alt-rock’s royal court and Last Splash’s runaway success.
If you thought that Pixies reunion tour might have put the sugar back in Kim’s sound, Mountain Battles, the Breeders’ fourth album overall and second with its current line-up of the Deal twins and the rhythm section of Jose Meledes and Mando Lopez, formerly of legendary L.A. punk stalwarts Fear, is yet another swift kick to your lofty expectations. Boasting an Unsane-style album cover of what appears to be the aftermath of a bloody windshield ejection from a car crash, it is most certainly the band’s darkest hued work to date, both in image and substance.
The album was produced by Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago, who, unless all of the speakers in my car, computer, and home stereo have simultaneously gone on the fritz, mixed it really low, presumably, according to a recent interview with Kim on Rollingstone.com, due to the record being recorded from half-inch analog tape directly to vinyl. This is perhaps the only major flaw miring this otherwise wonderful album, which seems to serve as an extension of the terrain they had begun to explore with their current line-up on Title TK and act as the ultimate anti-Last Splash.
Granted, there are a couple of songs on here that do, in fact, tug at your tolerance levels, namely the Dadaist rallies of such tracks as “Bang On” and “Istanbul” where the Deal sisters trade in their lovely twin-synched timbres for inane shouting. But that’s just two songs out of fourteen. Overall, Mountain Battles shines in its aim to surprise the listener at every turn, whether it’s through scrappy rockers like “Walk It Off” and “No Way”, both of which are more reminiscent of Deal’s celebrated 1995 solo project The Amps than the Breeders, or quieter moments like the spare, gorgeous “We’re Gonna Rise”, the hushed “Spark”, or the ominous title track, which closes out the album.
However, the true genius of Mountain Battles exists within its most unexpected hairpin turns along the sonic superhighway, namely the fiery “German Studies”, sung completely in German by Kim, a cover of the bolero standard “Regalame Esta Noche” sung ever so beautifully in Spanglish by Kelley and the rustic mountain folk balladry of “Here No More”, crooned simultaneously by both sisters in the vein of the Carter Family. The latter two easily stand in tandem alongside “Drivin’ on 9” amongst the Breeders’ loveliest moments on record — and a staunch reason to completely overlook any slight annoyances that might otherwise divert you from loving up a lesser album, like, say, just about every solo release that Frank Black has released since he was dropped from Elektra, maybe?