The Breeders are the only rock band I’ve liked ever since the dark ages. The dark ages were my early teenage years, a hazy period from around 1994 to 1996 when I enjoyed the brief fame of Ace of Base and the reign of sassy black teenagers like Brandy and Monica. It was also a time when I wore crop tops with excessively large pants, and sometimes emulated Courtney Love. Basically, I liked the Breeders before I had any taste.
At the time, the Breeders were a relatively unknown band led by Kim Deal, the former bassist of the Pixies; megastars like Nirvana owed much to the Pixies for paving the way for their pseudo-intellectual neurosis. Kim, feeling hemmed in by Frank Black’s male-dominated scene, decided to start a side project named for her old high school band. The Breeders’ other driving force was Tonya Donnelly, from the female indie-pop band Throwing Muses.
The Breeders’ first album, Pod, came out in 1990. But it was Thanksgiving 1992 when my cousin Joanna pulled me into my bedroom to show me the way of decent music. Each year, Joanna would show up with her hair a different punky color. Whenever Joanna was in town, I would hear my mother twittering things like: “I’m so worried about Jo. I mean, she’s just so unconventional. She should just settle down and get a real job.”
Then my grandmother would reply in her soft Viennese accent (a cross between Doctor Ruth and Marlene Dietrich), “Maybe she’s a lesbian.”
“No no, Jo just marches to the beat of her own drummer. Well, maybe her own timpani.”
I always looked up to Joanna as my coolest older cousin. I mean, she watched MTV before it had commercials. She spent a year in Czechoslovakia. She drank wine at family gatherings. And I didn’t just like Jo—I wanted to be like her. She saw me as fertile ground for influence. Ever since fourth grade, she deemed me as the artsy one because I wrote a poem about how much I hated mimes. It was called “I Hate Mimes.” Jo made it her personal mission to educate me in the ways of independent rock music and good literature. So that Thanksgiving, when I was 10, she sat me on my bed.
“You really need to listen to this.”
I sat on my pink floral Laura Ashley bedspread, among various stuffed paraphernalia, and I wondered what was happening. Then I heard Kim’s dulcet tones on the opening track of Pod, “It’s glorio-u-u-u-us. It’s glorious-u-u-u-us,” and it truly was. I listened to the whole album in one sitting, and although I didn’t really get it (how could a 10-year-old know that “Hellbound” was about a living abortion?), I knew I had found something that was my own. Kim sometimes shouted, and sometimes whimpered. She spoke to the burgeoning angsty adolescent in me.
And by early 1994, my adolescence had hit hard. During sixth grade, I lost my baby fat and braces, and by the end of the year had the biggest chest in my class. This was the height of grunge, and I had a tough choice. What to listen to . . . “Nirvana and Pearl Jam, or Whitney Houston? Eddie Vedder is such a cutie, but he is always like, so angry! Whitney wears much cuter outfits, anyway. . . . ”
But the Breeders made it easy. They were cute girls and rock stars. In late 1993, the Breeders had their biggest hit, Last Splash. Though I didn’t quite understand Last Splash either (I thought “I’m just looking for a divine hammer/I’d bang it all day” was really about a big hammer!), that didn’t matter. “Cannonball” was a hit single, with a video on MTV. Kim was out in front, looking fetching in striped thigh-highs and a short skirt.
By this time, the lineup had changed significantly. What had started out as Kim’s side project had turned into her focus. Tanya Donnelly had left to form her own band, Belly. Kim’s twin sister, Kelley, replaced Donnelly, and with Josephine Wiggs still on bass and a male drummer billed as “Mike Hunt,” the Breeders were new, and I’d say improved.
When I went into high school, I still retained some bright-eyed, bushy-tailed idealism. But alas, high school beat out of me any affinity for pop music I might have had. I needed something dark, something different. It helped that my first real crush, Ben, was into Pavement. Ben reinforced my idea that all mainstream music was crap to be belittled. We would sit in his basement while he tried to undo my bra, and he would extol the virtues of Stephen Malkmus whining about how much his life sucked.
After Ben went off to Dartmouth and left me behind, my bitterness propelled me into angry lesbian rock. I got more into the Breeders and Belly, then went further. I started listening religiously to Throwing Muses, and to anything Kim Deal-related. Around this time, I found out the Breeders were on a semi-permanent hiatus. Kelley Deal had been arrested for heroin possession back in 1995, and was still in and out of rehab. Kim had started yet another side project, the Amps, who released an album called Pacer—just what I needed. It was rough and under-produced. It had an unfinished, venomous feel to it. In a song called “Tipp City,” Kim shouts, “Stop drinkin’ my beer!” It was all I could do not to jump up and down and scream for more girl power.
When I got to college, I found fellow indie-music lovers. At my high school, most people had never even heard of the bands I liked—one friend refused to get into my car if I was playing Björk. She said it made me drive all crazylike. Once I got to college, I found millions of people ready to argue the relative merits of Beulah or Granddaddy. I learned there’s even a song called “Cool as Kim Deal,” by the Dandy Warhols. I would dance around my room to the Breeders in my underwear, and my roommate didn’t think I was weird.
The Breeders finally released a new album, Title TK, on May 21. The CD’s mere existence is an accomplishment. Very few bands go on decade-long breaks and continue recording. But actually, Title TK is more of a frustration than anything else. In a lot of ways, it picks up where Pacer left off. TK‘s first track, “Little Fury” begins with the same solo drum beat as “Tipp City” on Pacer. Both albums have 12 songs; both last about 35 minutes. Track eight on both is actually the same song, “Full on Idle,” and I’m still not sure if this is a good thing. “Full on Idle” is my favorite song on Pacer—fast, hard rocking, deadly catchy. The new version is slowed down considerably, and about 20 seconds longer; it also has Kim and Kelley harmonies, which of course, was impossible on Pacer because Kelley wasn’t there. In most cases, the sisters’ harmonies are part of what makes the later Breeders great, but here, they detract from the tough power of the song.
Title TK is definitely the most sedate record the Breeders have made. They still have the same hard-partying mentality: “Title TK/If I don’t black out.” But the songs on TK are more sinister and toned-down. Highlights include “Off You,” where Kim sounds sexier than I’d remembered. In a bedroom voice, she whimpers, “I am the autumn/I’m the scarlet/I’m the makeup on your eyes.” I also like “Huffer,” which harkens back to the old days. It’s faster than the other songs, and more unintelligible—Kim just sounds so pissed, it’s great.
Because of Kelley’s drug-addled past, I never even dreamed of seeing the Breeders in concert. I figured they were one band I’d have to be content to listen to in the privacy of my own room. When I found out they were touring a couple months ago to support Title TK, I almost wet my pants. Kim. Live. In person. Holy shit. I bought tickets as soon as humanly possible.
A dank basement venue in Cambridge. Beer and cigarette grime on the floor. Graphic posters for other hip bands plastered over smoggy walls. Crappy opening act—ahhh, it was all ambience. I could have been in a port-a-potty, I would have been one happy duck. Kim came out first. She was kind of wearing a baggy poncho. Like she’s so cool, she doesn’t have to try to impress anyone with her clothes. Kim is so cool that she didn’t even have a hair elastic. When her long, stringy hair would stick to her cheeks, she would ball up the loose ends of brown, and stick them into the back of her T-shirt. Before they started playing, I was nervous. What if they sucked? What if all my hopes and dreams came crashing down on their rocky guitar solos?
As soon as Kim played the first notes, I recognized the song as one of my favorites—”Doe,” from Pod. It starts out all quiet, and then there’s a major crescendo until Kim is shouting in her girly voice, “I walk to where he’s sitting/It’s all salty/It’s all salty/It’s good, It’s real, It’s pretty/It’s all salty, Timmy . . .” Then, as if the blowjob is over, Kim whispers, “He said Doe, Doe, Doe.” I was in heaven. Angsty, suburban, white-girl, orgasmic heaven.
There was even a moshpit. I totally got into it . . . well, sort of. I pushed a bunch of girls who ran into me, and then pretended I didn’t. Until the last song, “Divine Hammer,” I was truly blissfully high. It was a rush. It felt as good as if I were up there, singing and playing the guitar and the fans were all screaming for me.
After the show, I wrote to Joanna, who had just had her 30th birthday, and told her about the concert. I also e-mailed her names of some newer bands I was listening to.
Joanna wrote back promptly: “Dear Jess, Thank you for the old lady guide to being cool in 2002. I didn’t even know the Breeders were touring again. Shows how much I know. I’m glad you had fun at the show . . . Love, Joanna.”