Wild Mercury Sound

The Breeders: "Mountain Battles"

John Mulvey

Great title, for a start, though I have little idea what it means. I just put “Mountain Battles” on for the third, maybe fourth time, and I’m beginning to get the hang of it. For a start, it sounds like something of a departure.

“Overglazed” – and that title is very descriptive of how the song sounds, in their world at least – begins the fourth Breeders album with a great ecstatic surge, Kim Deal exclaiming “I can feel it!” while her voice and band phase, echo and reverberate around her, and the guitars start running wildly backwards. “Bang On” follows with squelchy, low-end dance beats, insidious little guitar riffs, and Deal chanting, “I love no-one and no-one loves me,” surrounded by acres of space, until the band gradually amble a little closer into focus.

It’s an odd, stark and increasingly fascinating track. And though the beats initially suggest a radical departure, it’s that emptiness which is so striking, throwing that rueful, cracked, still-playful voice into focus, and recalling the powerful minimalism of the last Breeders record, 2002’s “Title TK”.

Much of “Mountain Battles”, it transpires, works out as a logical sequel to “Title TK”. “Night Of Joy” is a superb cousin to “Off You”, a plaintive and muted, low-lit song of yearning that seems, like so many Kim Deal songs, to be written in a narrow, rumbling bass register. The guitar twangs are redolent of a kind of subtle surf, and it reminds me, too, of the Pixies’ “Ana”.

Like “Title TK”, “Mountain Battles” flips between these gorgeous and frail ballads (“Night Of Joy” is followed by “We’re Gonna Rise”, which is maybe even better) and those spluttery, humming garage ramalams that seem driven – to start, stop, start again, maybe continue for a while, whatever – by Deal’s spur-of-the-moment whims. Again, you have to trust her and go along with the plan.

Expect the Breeders to function like a normal band, and you’ll be disappointed. Many of these songs wander around in a way which casual listeners might suspect was aimless, and the fragmented way in which the band drop in and out of tunes can be frustrating if you’re not a paid-up believer in Deal’s quixotic vision. The general vibes are sketchy, impressionistic, sleepily mischievous (Kim practises her German for much of “German Studies”; sister Kelley has a crack at Spanish on “Regalame Esta Niche”; “Istanbul” features the twins harmonising and hollering in a profoundly shakey stab at exotic mystery) and, after a handful of close listens, a lot more artful and a lot less offhand than it might initially seem.

Occasionally, in the strident little builds of, say, “Walk It Off” or “It’s The Love”, you can spot the pop imperative that was behind “Cannonball” and so on. But generally, this is another Breeders album that depends on Deal’s brilliant grasp of how to invest a skeletal song with all the eccentricities and hesitant charms of her personality. It’s clear, too, why she apparently backed out of making another Pixies album after those reunion jaunts with Black Francis and co.

There are still the trace elements of the Pixies’ music in Deal’s songs, but over the past decade and a half, she has shot off in such a diametrically opposite direction to the more conventional – and, you suspect, more conventionally ambitious – Black Francis, that I’d guess working within the confines of the Pixies in the studio would be a waste of her energies.

Why would she go back there when she can swap country harmonies with her sister on “Here No More”, then create a sense of casual, buzzing, grunge-caked menace on “No Way”? “Mountain Battles” is a weird, awkward, slowly rewarding album. But I’m pretty sure it’s far more interesting than anything the Pixies could manage in 2008.


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