Sunday, March 21, 2010

March 21: The Breeders, "Cannonball"

Artist: The Breeders
Song: "Cannonball"
Album: Last Splash
Year: 1993

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While anyone can name at least a dozen memorable guitar riffs from music history, very few can name an equal number of iconic bass riffs from the same, endless time-frame.  It is through facts like this that one can easily make the case that the bass is likely the most underrated piece of a band, and yet without this instrument, nearly every song ever written would simply fall flat.  Furthermore, when there is a song that features a bassline that is so prominent, it is often even more unforgettable than its guitar counterparts, and in at least one case, a simple bass progression largely defined an entire generation.  Perfectly capturing the "anything goes" attitude that was quickly spreading throughout the world in the early 1990's, many so-called "alternative" bands found quick rises to fame as their songs threw away the boundaries of music that had been so present for well over a decade.  Among these courageous groups, there were none that sounded quite like the aggressive art-rock sounds of the all-star laden band, The Breeders.  A group that had largely started as a side project for The Pixies' Kim Deal, the band clearly became her primary focus, and the music found on their early records remain some of the most innovative and truly exciting music of the entire decade.  While their debut record, Pod, remains a true classic of music, there was nothing that could have prepared the band or the world for the widespread success of what is unquestionably their best known song: the infectious and iconic 1993 single, "Cannonball."

When it comes to the brilliant music on "Cannonball," it is truly all about the opening bass riff.  After a bit of heavily distorted chaos, and drummer Jim MacPherson counting out the beat, Josephine Wiggs drops in alone, and the simple, five note progression remains one of the most iconic musical moments of the entire decade.  Truth be told, play that simple riff for nearly anyone who was "of age" at that time, and they will instantly remember the entire song.  When the rest of the band drops in, it is quickly obvious that The Breeders have an uncanny talent for writing songs that are both musically adventurous, as well as heavy in pop appeal.  The core of the guitars of Kim and Kelley Deal in many ways define the bands' sound, and finding that balance between the experimental, noisy sound of The Pixies, and yet making it possible for Kim Deal to truly show off her amazing musical talents makes it no surprise when The Breeders quickly became her first musical priority.  From the onset, the music on "Cannonball" begins to build a wonderful tension that explodes on each chorus in brilliant fashion, and the heavily distorted vocals that accompany it are nothing short of a perfect fit.  Taking a page from the blues, "Cannonball" also features a number of wonderfully placed pauses, and these breaks in the music only add to the overall tension and enjoyment of the song.  The high energy of all of the musicians is also largely unrivaled in the music of the era, as they are loud, aggressive, and yet the one thing that sets them apart is that they are clearly having fun playing this tune.  In an era filled with grim, somber rock songs, "Cannonball" provided a breath of light, fresh air to a generation that was clearly looking for a different sound.

Along with the wild music, "Cannonball" also features equally "on tilt" vocals, and the lyrics contain many hidden gems as well.  With nearly all of the lead vocal parts being handled by Kim Deal, it is quickly clear that she has one of the finest and most unique vocal approaches in the history of music.  Able to instantly switch form her hypnotic, almost calm sound on the verses to the screaming, powerful choruses, there has simply never been another vocal track that is quite like "Cannonball."  It is within the verses and the bridge where one finds beautiful harmonies, something that was frustratingly rare within the entire music scene of the early 1990's.  This ability to mix together the more refined, more musical sounds alongside the wild choruses and music is much the reason the song is so fantastic and remains so iconic nearly two decades later.  Also adding to this are some of the most amusing and sometimes almost Dadaist lyrics ever placed on record.  While the core of the lyrics repeats, "Spitting in a wishing well...blown to hell...crash" before the band pauses so Deal can drop the album title, it is within the other words that one finds the sly brilliance of Deal's writing ability.  Throughout the song, she spins amazing phrasings, such as when she jokingly sings, "...I'll be your whatever you want...the bong in this reggae song..."  Though the lyrics are largely in jest, one cannot overlook them as they spotlight the fantastic singing of Kim Deal, and clearly, when given center stage, she quickly rises as one of the finest writers and singers of her generation.

Truth be told, one could not really escape the presence of "Cannonball," as countless magazines named it the best song of the year, and as the decade ended, it still found its way to the top of "best of the decade" lists all over the world.  It was a massive commercial success, ruling the charts in more than half a dozen countries, and "Cannonball" helped to make Last Splash The Breeders' most commercially successful record, eventually going platinum.  After hearing the song once, this success is not all that surprising, as the tune has everything one needs for success, and furthermore, it was a far cry form a majority of music that was being made at the time.  Taking a brighter, more upbeat approach, and powered by an unforgettable bassline, "Cannonball" truly took the world by storm and offered a welcome break from the melancholy world of "grunge."  In many ways the full realization of the musical world of Kim Deal, The Breeders remain one of the most important acts of the decade, and one can realize why Deal was rather hesitant to disband this group.  In reality, the entire Breeders catalog features one fantastic musical moment after another, but they would never reach the same commercial success that they found in "Cannonball."  Bringing together the edgy sound of the "alternative" music movement, along with superb musical writing and an attitude that comes through clearly in every aspect of the song, The Breeders are clearly at the top of their game, and it is largely the reason why there has rarely been a song that so perfectly captures a moment in history as one finds in their 1993 masterpiece, "Cannonball."


Anonymous said...

Great review.definitely a most incredible,indelible song.

As a young girl in oz i remember this song,there werent many
all-female rock bands around- none in oz at that time(there were plently of female singers around the world)but the boys held the guitars!
It was great boost for my female confidence to see such a tough,strong female band break into the male bastion of rock.
Yes,the guitars in Cannonball were truly masterful. The so smooth & thick bass riff opening followed by kims guitar riff-just 4?
notes bent so perfectly, musically completed the song.
A perfect tonal transition.
Bach would be proud.
Tis great to see some classical pianists covering such songs too-breeders,pixies,radiohead etc.
(Music never lets u down as james Rhodes often says.)kate

Anonymous said...

edit:yes well was mainly all female band,male drummer!.
written by the girls!( i for first time bought & heard their Last Splash albumn today, some 20 years after hearing Cannonball-great masterful album.dosent date at all.