Hello, listeners of the Internet. I hope you’re in the mood for rock, because rock is on the turntable today. Let’s pause for a moment while the band plays the spooky intro track “Glorious.”
I’m trying to remember when I first got into the Breeders. Pod came out in 1990. I was a sophomore in high school and listening to Primus, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and probably lots of Zeppelin and Madonna. I was not on the cutting edge of the underground at age 14. I probably didn’t know Pod until four years later – after I’d heard their later, better selling album Last Splash.
But it wasn’t until later, after Last Splash, that I heard there was an earlier Breeders album and I found Pod. This was also after I had loved and lost hold of Belly and Throwing Muses, both projects that embodied the melodic “girl rock” of the 90s I was exactly the right age to be really, really smitten with. Yes, Sassy Magazine was a big part of high school for me and my friends.
When I first heard Pod, it felt … murky. Almost experimental, although that’s not a word I would have used at the time. I wanted it to rock harder, more verse-chorus-verse. More pop, I guess. Here was slow builds, gently voiced, mixed with raw shreds, haunting far-from-the-microphone ghost girl sighs, slow and quiet despite it still being… loud. I liked the album, and I knew I should like the album because I liked the Breeders and everyone knows a popular band’s first album is always better, before they got big. But I also secretly thought it wasn’t catchy enough. It wasn’t like reliving my high school years, the era of its release, which should have been grungey distortion and loud anger and three-chord silliness for all to hear. It felt a bit embryonic, and also a bit more… mature than Last Splash. But I just didn’t like it as much.
When I was a painter I painted you (first).
People who are really into music, who make being a “music person” part of their identities and their social lives (be they music makers, collectors, listeners, or critics) often like to be first. This cliché has become a clichéd-in-itself joke among music people if they are the type of music people who stray towards independent or “alternative” music: “Their first album was better” we’ll say, or “I liked them for years before they got popular,” laughing a bit self-consciously at the ridiculousness of that mattering or being worth anything in a dialogue about musical merit, yet still offering our singular punctuality up as a valuable characteristic, a check mark on some sort of never-voiced score card of who is cool, or original, or old-school. Who knows the most, first.
Well, Internet, I am here to tell you: I never liked anyone first.
That’s not true, exactly — I was accidentally first a number of times. Accidentally is how I went to the first Yo Yo a Go Go indie music festival in Olympia, Washington, in the summer of 1994 Beck was headlining, but it was just after “Loser” had hit the charts and the audience heckled him: “sellout!” and “play your number one hit, dude” pelted him from the depths of the dark theater during his entire, good set. I was on a road trip, driving in a small truck with two friends, sleeping in the back all squished together in hot northwestern nights. SF to Vancouver and back with Scout and Sara. I didn’t even know how to drive; just sat in the middle and helped pilot the tape deck. Scout said, hey, let’s stop in to this festival I heard about, and there we were. There was Beck and there was this band there, Built to Spill, that we had never heard of. Some of them came back on later to play with Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening; they called themselves the Halo Benders and we thought they were slightly more wanky and more boring than BTS. We were there to see Excuse 17, Team Dresch, and other favorite riot grrl bands, but later the name Built to Spill rang a lot of bells. Apparently, Neutral Milk Hotel played; I don’t remember seeing them, it’s possible we didn’t go to that show or it’s possible we didn’t remember them.
(You see what I did there, Internet? I said it doesn’t matter to like cool bands first and then I casually dropped in a reference to a time in which I saw very cool bands, first. Then I acted like it was so not a big deal, because that’s just how indie I was. Pretty sneaky, huh?)
What I do remember, very vaguely, was the guitar player in some band (Some Velvet Sidewalk maybe?) wearing a t-shirt that said BREEDER. I thought that was pretty great, because I liked The Breeders and I liked their band name because I liked the semiotic switcharoo of labeling the norm instead of the exception to the norm.
Okay, I’m straying a bit from the task at hand here. We’re on to the second side of the album. But I bring up this cool-status criterion because I think we’re going to be talking about the 90s a lot during the course of this record listening/writing project here; the 90s were the decade in which I developed musically, so I have a lot of records that reflect that. In that decade, when “alternative” was first becoming a Grammy category but underground music was still mainly segregated from the masses (in other words, before the World Wide Web), it felt important to know when a person started listening to stuff. I’m not saying it was right. It was just part of it.
So let’s get this out of the way:
I didn’t get into Nirvana until Smells Like Teen Spirit was on MTV.
I didn’t listen to the Pixies until after they had broken up–1992 to be exact.
And I had heard only vaguely of The Breeders before Last Splash, in the form of their rockin cover of the Who’s “So Sad About Us” (from the Safari EP) that was on a mix tape belonging to my friend and future roommate Sara (the same friend with whom I went to Yo Yo a Go Go). We loved this song, and I didn’t know it was a cover. We would rewind it and listen to it again and again in Sara’s mom’s truck, including on that hot summer road trip to the Northwest. I still recall its place on the tape—the end of the first side, so it was easy to find by rewinding or fast forwarding either side close to completion. It seemed so mysterious, this rumored “side project of the Pixies.” To me this song was classic Breeders from the start– honest, power-chordy guitars, catchy chorus, girly voices that were somehow still way tougher than most boys, despite their high registers.
How much of my preferring Last Splash to Pod (not that you have to choose–they’re both good records, both with strengths and weaknesses) has to do with Tanya Donelly being Kim Deal’s collaborator on Pod and Kelley Deal taking that place on Last Splash? In listening today, I am surprised to realize that I must prefer Kelley’s rawness, the slightly harsher and less… technically “good” la-la of her backing vocals. That’s not to say I don’t like Tanya Donelly—she’s awesome!–but perhaps I prefer her talents as voiced in her other bands. Or maybe Pod just wasn’t what I was digging in 1993, as a recent high school graduate, quickly becoming a distanced college dropout, poised on the brink of my twenties, worshiping the grit and gravel of riot grrl and PJ Harvey but also starting to explore more diverse stuff — punk and hardcore and even, later, soon, more “out” jazz.
Now, listening, again, in my 30s, I just think … damn, this is so fucking rock and roll.
Sing Back, Louise
There are some amazing and solid songs on this album, great catchy and un-catchy rock songs with plenty of bar chords to satisfy my high school self and winningly ethereal harmonies tossed back and forth between Kim Deal and Tonya Donnelly. But for me, today, in my apartment re-listening to Side A, the moment on this album is in the early moments of another Breeders cover– “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” The moment is the flick of a lighter, close to a mic somewhere, perhaps on purpose but certainly beautifully captured (thanks to Steve Albini, master OCD producer). With one flick of a lighter the listener is in the room—be it the bar or the bedroom or out on the park bench where girls, three kick-ass girls, are shooting, and singing, back.
That’s it. Just sing back. That’s what I first heard in all this 90s ladies-who-rock stuff. I heard women singing back. To the “alternative rock” boys. To the Pixies boys. To why can’t women just be in good rock bands like this, is that really too much to ask? To how as a female whenever I walk into a music store I am still, every time, in this new millennium, shown the acoustic guitars first. So yeah, light a fucking cigarette and let’s go, John and Paul. This is how we did it in the nineteen nineties. Soft and blurry and loud and fuzzy and good.
Sometime after this came the Spice Girls. First, there was Belly, and parallel to this was Sassy , and Hillary Clinton was talking on the television a lot. And then came the Spice Girls and it all stopped, and now we have fashion girls where once we had guitars.
Fuck the Spice Girls. Kim Deal is a rock and roll hero.
Things I never knew about this album before: drummer “Shannon Naughton” was Britt Walford of Slint.