Sunday, November 15, 2009

November 15: The Breeders, "Pod"

Artist: The Breeders
Album: Pod
Year: 1990
Label: 4AD

In most cases, when a group that is considered a “super-group” makes a record, the expectations are extremely high, and the group implodes soon after. This is almost always due to clashes within the group due to overwhelming egos. However, from time to time, these “super-groups” work, and the music they produce marks pivotal moments in music history. One of these successful forays into “super-group” music making was when a pair of the finest performers of the “alternative” uprising of the 1980’s paired up and formed one of the greatest bands of the early 1990’s: The Breeders. The core of the group was ex-Pixies bassist, Kim Deal, and ex-Throwing Muses vocalist and guitarist, Tanya Donelly (who would form Belly after recording on the first Breeders record). One can make the case that both Deal and Donelly were tired of being the “second fiddle” in their respective groups, and The Breeders offered them both a place to fully explore their own musical ideas. The music of The Breeders is as fresh and original as one will find anywhere, as it understandably combines the sparse, almost dark instrumentation of Throwing Muses with the uniquely warped pop perspective of The Pixies. Due to changing lineups, each of The Breeders’ seven albums has its own, unique feel, yet they all share a similar musical ethos. This variance in sound makes every album well worth owning, yet it is The Breeders’ 1990 debut, Pod, that stands as their finest musical achievement, as well as one of the most important albums in the development of the “alternative” music scene.

While having Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly on the same record should be enough reason for everyone to buy the record, there is one more individual who worked on the record that truly pushes its iconic status over the top. Handling the production on Pod is none other then the King of grunge production, Steve Albini. Though Albini worked on some of the most significant records of the 1990’s, he himself admitted that, in the case of Pod, “…it is the one album on which I felt I got both the best sound for a band, and the best performance from a band….” Furthermore, Kurt Cobain often cited the album as a massive influence on his own playing, and in 1992, he said of the album, “…it’s an epic that will never let you forget your ex-girlfriend.” To garner such high accolades from many of the most respected and revered music figures of a generation only adds to the albums’ greatness, as it is truly a rock record like no other ever made. Albini’s production is as good as he stated, and the often sparse musical arrangements come through with maximum impact, whether it is the sharp percussion of “When I Was A Painter” or the uniquely, yet perfectly harmonized vocals of “Metal Man.” Furthermore, the fact that the songs themselves range so drastically, from full-tilt rock and roll numbers to extremely sparse, acoustic numbers, yet they all sound equally fantastic serves as a testament to both Albini’s talents, as well as the unparalleled musicianship within the band itself.

Finding a single musician who can so perfectly play such a wide range of musical styles is tough enough, yet on Pod, The Breeders manage to group together four players with such talents. Moving as a single unit through every song, every song on the album is truly perfect, and there is not a moment anywhere on the record that is anything less than extraordinary. The dual guitars of Deal and Donelly stands today as one of the most powerful and dynamic guitar pairings in history, and the way in which they play with and around one another is truly amazing. Whether they are playing massive, shared chords or trading equally powerful, clever licks, each proves that they are as talented a guitarist as any of their peers. Also coming from another band where perhaps her talents were being under-utilized, Josephine Wiggs (from Perfect Disaster) is absolutely brilliant on bass throughout all of Pod. Albini’s production keeps her playing far to the front of the mix, and the more dominant bass gives The Breeders much of their trademark sound. In fact, it is this purposeful prominence of the bass that would help to give The Breeders their biggest single, with the surprise 1993 hit, “Cannonball.” Though credited as “Shannon Doughton,” the drumming on Pod was provided by Britt Walford. Though Walford would only last a single record with The Breeders, he playing throughout the album are as solid as his bandmates, and the textures he is able to create are the perfect backing for the rest of the music. There is not an off note anywhere on Pod, and few records are as innovative and as diverse, whilst staying as musically powerful.

As if their brilliant interactions on guitar and writing wasn't enough to make Pod a true classic, Deal and Donelly also combine their voices, as they share and trade lead vocal duties throughout the album. With each possessing a wonderfully beautiful and absolutely unique voice, their singing blends perfectly, and Pod marks a point of change and exploration for both vocalists. It is also on Pod where both Deal and Donelly begin to truly find their writing voices, and the lyrics found throughout the album rank among the finest that either has ever penned. As a majority of the songs were written by Kim Deal, one can immediately begin to wonder just how much different (read as "better") the songs of The Pixies could have been had they given her more space to present her songs on their records. To call Deal's subject matter unique or quirky is an understatement, yet each verse is brilliantly crafted and the words come off as nothing short of stunning. The Breeders also take a quick moment to put a very distinctive spin on The Beatles' classic, "Happiness Is A Warm Gun." Giving the song a far more aggressive and darker spin then the original, in many ways, the music presented by The Breeders more accurately captures the overall tone of the lyrics. Perfectly matching lyrical and vocal approach is clearly a trademark of The Breeders, and whether it is Kim Deal or Tanya Donelly that is singing, every song found on Pod is truly a flawless musical experience.

Presenting more concentrated creativity over the course of just one half hour then most bands produce in their entire career, one cannot overstate the importance of debut record from The Breeders. With the amazing skills brought to every song by Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly, it forces one to question just who was the most talented member of their previous bands. Every single song on Pod is truly amazing, and the group is able to find the ideal balance between the sparse, dark mood of Throwing Muses and the endearingly quirky "anti-pop" of The Pixies. Truly showing no fear, the group goes full-tilt into every style of music which they explore, and the resulting songs remain some of the most original and influential ever recorded. All four musicians execute the songs perfectly, and the way in which they are able to move as a single unit served as the blueprint for many of the "alternative rock" grooves that became international superstars in the following years. Whether it is Kim Deal's distinctive lyrics or the way in which she and Tonya Donelly interact throughout the record, Pod is a truly special musical experience, and neither performer can show such chemistry within any of their other musical endeavors. While The Breeders would find greater commercial success with their later records, it is on their truly stunning 1990 debut, Pod, where one finds the "genuine" spirit of the band, and the record is by far one of the most important records for the development of the "alternative" music boom that followed in its wake.

Standout tracks: "Doe," "Hellbound," and "When I Was A Painter."

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