The Breeders Mountain Battles

[4AD; 2008]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: surf rock, art pop, dirge punk ballad, Kim Deal
Others:  HA!

It can be disconcerting to wink at a person, so you better drape yourself in reverb and ampbuzz for the occasion. The Breeders aren’t about making big statements; they just want to beam down some Cheshire grin slight-of-hand and go back to their private lives. “Bang On,” the first new tune in years from our Dayton-by-way-of-East LA rock heroes says a lot (“I love no one, and no one loves me”) before a refrain in which Kim repeats “I’m missing” over and over till you think she’s gonna reveal what she’s missing. Instead, she just intones the ‘g’ sound for emphasis. She’s just missing. And you get the feeling it’s both okay and somehow endeared to her (as well as slightly dread-laced). One great thing about The Breeders is their consistent ability to make overtly poppy, simple songs subtly daring and daringly unique. There’s both directness and obliqueness in everything they do. While listening to their newest entry here in the dizzingly multi-tiered music scenes of 2008, I can’t help but wish they had released more music over the years.

Mountain Battles is a terrific record. It’s mostly pretty chilled, but so was Title TK, which was also exceptional. Some have criticized The Breeders' post-Last Splash material as underwhelming, but I was admittedly floored the first time I heard Title TK’s “The She” and “Forced To Drive.” Still, I do sense that The Breeders/Kim aren’t necessarily creatively firing on all cylinders. Even more so, I get the feeling that their particular brand of songwriting would have benefited from a more exhaustive approach. But life happens, so I don’t want to go there. Who knows why we get so few Breeders albums. I’d have loved it if Kim was inspired enough by GBV to go whole hog and manage even a quarter of their recorded output, but it didn’t go that way. Oh well. There’s a new album, and it's most certainly cause to celebrate.

I’ll get the missteps outta the way. The aforementioned “Bang On” is amusing but slight in terms of songwriting -- it’s over before you know it. And even though it features a winsome little Dinosaur guitar hook, “It’s The Love” is limp and inane. Meanwhile, “Walk It Off,” the vocals to which were heard in the Pixies documentary LoudQuietLoud, is reminiscent of the whole early-’90s “Alternative” period. While being somewhat instantly appealing for Deal freaks like myself who are more than content to hear her sultry coo on some straight-ahead garage slop, it’s a little like grunge-fer-dummies.

The rest of Mountain Battles, however, is more or less golden. I won’t spoil the experience with a track-by-track, but there are some fine, noteworthy tracks on here. Some bands get old and tame. Not The Breeders. They show us what they still got. They love to harmonize on a pretty little melody, and we love to listen. Just put on “Here No More” and take it in. The singing is so sweetly earthy and imperfect that you could picture Kim and Kelly functioning as a traditional folk act. Then there’s “Spark,” one of the coolest songs I’ve ever heard. It’s kinda like a slightly less subdued sequel to Title TK’s lugubrious workout, “Put On a Side.” Nobody does eerie experimental pop like Kim Deal. This song and the dub-inflected “Istanbul” are great new additions (after “Iris,” “Roi,” “Mad Lucas,” “Sinister Foxx,” etc.) to this side of the band’s catalogue. “Night of Joy” is a real treat, as we get another chance to hear Kim doing a ’50s girl-group style (the first was when she collaborated with Sonic Youth for “Little Trouble Girl) -- it’s just too gorgeous for words. Kim’s singing is so hopelessly transporting, and it doesn’t help that they shoot you with another sumptuous slow dance deathray directly after with “We’re Gonna Rise.”

Title track “Mountain Battles” reminds me of “Videotape,” the closer to the Radiohead's In Rainbows. Both bands seem to be ending on very elegiac, yet pensive notes. “Mountain Battles,” however, is sparer than “Videotape,” featuring just Kim’s voice, some organ, and a bit of guitar. The drowsy perfection of Kim’s vocal delivery and how it elevates such spare elements never lets you down. It’s intoxicating from the “I CAN FEEL IT!” at the start album to the “thinking of things to do” at its conclusion. And she sounds great in Spanish (“Regalame Esta Noche”) and German (“German Studies”) too! This album’s a little more fun than the last (though I gotta say I find “T and T” to be one of the more riotous drunk sounding songs I’ve laid ears on), but it’s still got that removed, hovering-in-the-near-distance vocal strangeness that makes listening to anything Kim graces with her presence worth hearing.

Mountain Battles isn't exactly timely, but so what. There’s nothing remotely trendy about it, and thank god! Its song structures are immersively pitched and undoubtedly all the better for their demo tape looseness. It’s bizarre and varied and very classically Deal, which is always a welcome sound to my ears. Buy the album, see them play this summer. Support a talented crew of rockers whose regrettably sparse discography has actually held up much better than most will bother to acknowledge. Mountain Battles is no exception. It’s not gonna reinvent or rearrange or re-anything for the average listener, but it will please people who enjoy quirky, slightly off-kilter pop music. And Breeders fans (I’m still trying to figure out you don’t-like-anything-except-The Pod folks), this album is an embarrassment of riches, and this fact has no doubt leaked through this Breeders fan’s review.

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