The Breeders - Pod Music Album Reviews

The Breeders - Pod Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the Breeders’ debut album, a warped and indispensable piece of the ’90s alternative canon.

Sex may be the engine of pop music, but what of breeding? Nothing looks less cool (to those for whom the appearance of coolness is of prime importance) than changing diapers, starting a college fund, and being optimistic enough to believe in the long-term survival of the human species. More than that, though, even the word breeding carries the humiliating connotation of intimate acts performed in captivity, under surveillance. It makes the Breeders kind of a gross band name, as Kim Deal was well aware. “Back in the late ’80s, there was so much shit given to gay people,” she has said, “but at the same time gay people thought heterosexuality was disgusting, and I loved that.”
Although it dates back to Deal’s pre-Pixies teenage duo with twin sister Kelley, the moniker is eerily well-suited to the band’s debut album. Released amid the bursting buds of May 1990, Pod is vividly sensual and sexual without being sexy in an alluring sense, like the music of the era’s biggest pop stars: Madonna, Janet Jackson, Prince. It is also, in its close atmosphere as well as its lyrics, a little disgusting. Deal has described the record as a collection of “ugly, stinking gross songs.” One of the best of the bunch, “When I Was a Painter,” captures the record’s tension between intimacy and revulsion, describing a room thick with “bad sex and bad TV.”

Maybe it was this hermetic, almost fermented quality that kept the collaboration between Deal and Throwing Muses co-frontwoman Tanya Donelly from attracting nearly as much attention as they were getting in their more extroverted main gigs. In the 16 months between 1989’s Doolittle and 1990’s Bossanova, Black Francis barely needed to cough to have NME and Spin asking for a quote. But Pod was mostly dispatched with faint praise by that same rock press whose support was so critical to independent artists at the time. Just a few years later, by which time Donelly had left and Kelley had rejoined the lineup to replace her, alt-rock had become an unlikely music-industry gold rush. The Breeders’ sunnier, airier second album, 1993’s Last Splash, rode the “Cannonball” wave to platinum certification and relegated their earlier releases to footnotes. Only in retrospect did it become apparent how crucial Pod was in creating the necessary conditions for the Breeders—and so many other bands—to thrive.

Like so many underground bands that prominently featured women (the Raincoats, the Vaselines, Shonen Knife), the Breeders got a boost in visibility during the early ’90s through the effusive support of Kurt Cobain. Speaking to Melody Maker in 1992, the world’s biggest rock star explained: “The main reason I like them is for their songs, for the way they structure them, which is totally unique, very atmospheric. I wish Kim was allowed to write more songs for the Pixies, because ‘Gigantic’ is the best Pixies song and Kim wrote it.” The same year, Nirvana would take the Breeders on tour and Cobain would later admit to Deal, in a joint interview with UK ambassador to grunge Everett True, “I loved Pod so much that I was really freaked out to meet you.”

Much has been made of Cobain’s characteristically self-deprecating insistence that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was really just a Pixies rip-off, appropriating a dynamic that was “soft and quiet and then loud and hard.” But the influence of Pod seems to run even deeper in his music. Its sensibility is palpable not just in the song structures on Nirvana’s two major-label studio albums, or in their decision to hire Pod’s producer, Steve Albini, to record In Utero. (Though Albini also produced the Pixies’ debut album, Surfer Rosa, he has often expressed his preference for the Breeders. On Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2015, he opined that Deal was a “genius,” but “the Pixies, as a band, they were fine. Whatever.”) There is also a striking similarity between Cobain’s preoccupations and the themes of the Breeders’ debut: loneliness, disgust, trauma, sex, childhood, introspection, anatomy, intoxication, psychosis. The songs evoke isolation but never feel desolate, swaddled as they are, almost to the point of suffocation, in the warm, druggy, dissociative fog that the Cobain of In Utero would name “your magnet tar-pit trap” and “the comfort in being sad” and “a Leonard Cohen afterworld.”

Nothing could’ve been farther from the kind of music Deal and Donelly started out trying to make, the night they left a Sugarcubes show in 1989 determined to get rich off a dance hit. Unfortunately for their bank accounts, neither had a “Regina” in her. “We started it and figured out we couldn’t do it for beans,” Donelly told the L.A. Times in 1990. “We had no idea what to do.” They also realized that their existing record deals would prohibit them—both impressive songwriters whose contributions to their original bands were being minimized or overshadowed by bigger personalities—from sharing primary writing credits on any Breeders album. So they decided to take turns. Pod turned out to be a half-hour of brooding sketches Deal had already written. Donelly was supposed to be next, but her material got kicked far enough down the road that she wound up extricating herself from the Breeders and Throwing Muses’ fragile visionary Kristin Hersh to found Belly.

Deal recounted the often grotesque backstory behind each track in early interviews. “Glorious” opens the album with playful, preverbal babble, as the dual guitars wind around each other, Pixies style. Deal repeats the minimal chorus—“It’s glorious”—as if in a reverie, stretching the final syllable like she’s desperate to hold onto the word. This, apparently, is a song about being molested by an aunt; the tea she mentions in one verse is made of psychedelic mushrooms. Built on a skeletal bassline from Josephine Wiggs, formerly the bassist for onetime Pixies openers the Perfect Disaster, and fleshed out with meaty arena-rock riffs, “Hellbound” is the cartoonishly gory tale of a fetus that survives an abortion. In a less literal sense, Deal told Option, it’s “about creating stupid stuff, creating messes. Sometimes we all do dumb things and say, ‘Oh look, I've created an abortion and it lives.’” “Oh!” shares its languid, alt-country vibe with Mazzy Star, whose first album came out the same month as Pod. But what sounds like a delicate love song, softened by gentle backing vocals from Michael Allen of the Wolfgang Press and plaintive violin from Ed’s Redeeming Qualities co-founder Carrie Bradley, is allegedly about what it’s like to be an insect.

But this is information you can only really get from reading about the album. Though the lyrics are technically in English, it might as well have been recorded in a private language. When you’re actually listening to Pod, what resonates, more than any specific narrative, is the mood. Each line of Deal’s songwriting is a discreet smear of paint, legible in isolation or as part of the composite whole, but rarely as part of its immediate surroundings. “Fortunately Gone,” a concise little sock-hop jam that bounces atop drum beats from Slint’s Britt Walford (a last-minute addition to the group, on the advice of Albini), makes its torch-song wistfulness felt in Deal and Donelly’s sweetly overlapping vocals and in images like the one that opens the track: “I wait for you in heaven/On this perfect string of love.” Try to follow that train of thought through the next few lines—“And drink your soup of magpies in a/Pottery bowl that looks/As I am now, brown, round and warm”—and you’re lost. At the same time, “brown, round and warm” makes its own kind of sense; it describes the song’s sensory effect completely.

Pod can be so intensely physical as to test the line between exhilaration and obliteration. “Hour by hour!” Deal howls over and over as cymbals clang and guitars scratch on “Iris”—a track whose snarl contains the DNA of Hole’s blistering 1991 debut, Pretty on the Inside—and you’re imprisoned with her, watching the hands of the clock crawl. “Limehouse” is tactile in the extreme; so vivid it’s almost sticky, Deal’s description of how “warm black tar forms balls” cements the title’s reference to East London’s 19th-century opium district. Then she hands us the pipe as the interplay between verses creates a narcotic tunnel vision on one or two instruments between maximal choruses that whip the band into an ecstatic frenzy. “I’m in a lime house!” Deal keeps screaming, building up to sensory overload. There are plenty of charming hooks on Pod, but it’s most powerful at moments like this, with its lurid imagery amplified to the max and churned up by repetition into an annihilating force.

The Breeders’ shoegaze contemporaries also lived to overwhelm, but they required so much studio embellishment to get there. Albini, in his usual self-demoted capacity as engineer, did the opposite. After Deal and Donelly’s considerably bouncier demo tape convinced 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell to invest $11,000 in the project, the band spent a couple weeks at Edinburgh’s Palladium Studios with Albini, who wrapped up the sessions early and sent them home with recordings that were slower, rougher and sludgier than the material they’d brought him. The isolation and darkness and physicality and rot had always been present in Deal’s songs. Just as he’d go on to do with many other classic alternative albums, from PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me to In Utero, Albini simply kept the Breeders from tempering the weirdness and abjection in what they’d created.

Yet Pod turned out to be every bit as inviting as it was creepy. As Albini understands it, “The two elements always at war in Kim’s music are prettiness and decadence, the deb and the dirtbag each holding a ladder for the other.” For all its rawness, his production also establishes intimacy. By weaving in snippets of casual studio conversation and abruptly halting tracks before they have a chance to get boring, he recreates the messy energy of a DIY show in the listener’s headphones. The album’s comforting aspects may have also reflected how pleasant the recording process was. Deal told stories about the band’s time in Scotland, rhapsodizing over “sheep walking along the front lawn of the house we were recording in,” and summing up the experience as “cozy, like going to winter camp, or being in a pajama party."

Whatever alchemy was at work, it made Pod the kind of record that feels like the listener’s own secret no matter how popular it gets. The Raincoats’ self-titled debut, the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World or Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth—all Cobain favorites—have the same quality. With the partial exception of Nevermind, Nirvana albums are just the same: intimate, sensory, and psychological rather than cerebral or distanced. Deal articulated the difference between her music and the Pixies’ in 1990: “Do I write the same kind of songs as Charles? No! Get outta here! I don’t care about the Bible! I don’t care about UFOs!” You can imagine Cobain, who wrote about bodies and babies and heroin and feeling alone, heartily agreeing. If he shaped grunge, then the Breeders helped shape him. And he returned the favor, unintentionally, by creating a captive audience for their future releases.

I wish Deal got more credit for her impact on Cobain. It seems like a small thing, but Nirvana marked the convergence of mainstream and underground rock, catalyzing a permanent shift that only accelerated in the 21st century. And they’re usually placed in a lineage that begins with the Beatles, touches on punk and winds down with a list of mostly male ’80s indie acts: Mudhoney, R.E.M., the Meat Puppets, Pixies. Even as pop culture grows ever more eager to vanquish the appearance of sexism, we hear so little about how female musicians—or female artists in any medium—influence their male peers. It’s as though such a relationship would violate some natural hierarchy of creativity. And that’s one way pioneering women get written out of the history of their art form (see: Hilma af Klint, Clarice Lispector, Sister Rosetta Tharpe). It took Last Splash for the Breeders to win a place in the alt-rock canon, land of sold-out reunion tours and fat licensing checks. But without Pod, that canon might have looked very different.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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The Breeders - Pod Music Album Reviews The Breeders - Pod Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, September 13, 2020 Rating:

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