The Breeders started out as a side project helmed by Kim Deal, bassist for the late-'80s college rock band the Pixies. If in 1992 you were a teenage girl who considered attending the Rhode Island School of Design as a less adventurous alternative to the expatriate life in Amsterdam, odds are pretty good that you were into their first album, "Pod." Nobody even pretended to establish a foothold on the lyrics (Example: "She's in a kitchen in Kentucky/ And she thinks she's Peter Pan") but the cover art made it reasonably clear the vegetable of the title referred to part of the male anatomy. It boasted one of the best covers of a Beatles song ever, ("Happiness is a Warm Gun," fittingly) and made Kim Deal a minor legend independent of the Pixies.
The music on "Pod" was distinguished by the lethargic swing it introduced to post-punk; it encouraged hip-swaying instead of head-banging, even though it sounded pared-down and tough, consisting only of primitive bass, drums, guitar and vocals, with an occasional prehistoric violin drone. But the Breeders didn't blow up until the Pixies disbanded, Kim brought in her sister Kelley on guitar and they cut an album called "Last Splash" with a song called "Cannonball" on it. "Cannonball" took the spare instrumentation of the songs on "Pod" up-tempo, brightening it with studio effects. It felt more at home in skating rinks than in sculpture workshops. In 1993, MTV gave the "Cannonball" video heavy play on its "Alternative Nation" line-up, "Last Splash" went platinum, and nine years passed in silence.
The reasons for the break were extremely stupid. To make a long story short, Kelley struggled with drugs, and, at length, got off drugs. The Deal sisters fired their rhythm section and burned through a battalion of other musicians and recording studios. Kim fiddled endlessly with the details of the sound on many tracks. Finally they produced an album called "Title TK," "TK" being journalistic shorthand for "to come." It hits the racks Tuesday.
"Title TK" is an adroit recreation of the Breeders' early '90s sound, although more atmospheric than the other Breeders albums, as well as slower and more and contemplative. At bottom, the chord progressions, simple guitar lines, and laid-back angularity of the arrangements are still there. But something else is missing, and it's the energy a band tends to give off when it's functioning like a band as opposed to recording artists with back-up musicians. Call it bandness.
In a real band, the members each assume the right to contribute a part to the song and to some extent make their playing interesting in its own right, even as they uphold a group rhythm and harmony. There is an audible ongoing struggle between competition and collusion. "Title TK" represents an effort on the part of the Deal sisters to make something that captures the spirit of their long lost band, with a hired drummer and bassist taking orders. It's half a band and two employees impersonating a dead band. The songs are smart and pretty and delivered with feeling, especially on "Off You," in which Kim turns the line "I am the make-up on your eyes" into a tender break-up chorus. But they have no bandness.
Songwriting still counts for a lot, and "Title TK" is a good album even though it's the worst Breeders album. There are worse revivals afoot, one of the most unfortunate being that of Gary Wilson, who recorded an album of eccentric funk tunes in his parents' basement in the '70s called "You Think You Really Know Me" that attracted a cult following. Wilson is now back on stage doing an imitation of his old self. At his sold-out show in Manhattan last week, Wilson sang the songs from that record with a well-oiled back-up band, dropped the name of the upstate New York town he recorded them in, and rolled around in flour as a tribute to his old, legendary habit of rolling around in flour. He played himself: Gary Wilson, '70s outsider artist.
That spectacle was an extreme example of the problem afflicting the Breeders. When you line up a bunch of musicians to replicate the way you or your band made music in another decade, you sacrifice any feeling of spontaneity and innovation, no matter how spontaneous and innovative you used to be. Maybe on their next album, the Deal sisters will hang with their current band and develop a new voice, trusting in their talent to create a different sound from their old band. If they put faith in the durability of their talent, which produced the old Breeders sound not just in the durability of the old Breeders sound itself they may surprise us all.