The Weirdest Album to Ever go Platinum

 

THE BREEDERS ARE back.

Technically, they never left. They are just prone to slipping off the cultural radar for years at a time. Regardless, they are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their smash hit, Last Splash.

As monster reissues like this tend to do, the release is a reminder of how young music can make you feel but also how old you’ve become. I have spent the last two decades with this record, but three years stick out among them all: 1993, 2003 and 2013. In that time I’ve seen a beautifully weird record go platinum and dodged bandleader Kim Deal not once, but twice.

1993: I am the only person on earth who discovers the Melvins by hearing them on the radio. I’m not talking hip college stations. I mean professional radio, here.

I even recall the era’s sludgiest, gas-station-attendantiest looking grunge band actually doing an in-studio interview on Toledo’s 106.5 FM. Buzz Osborne told a story about running into the Ramones at a Cracker Barrel. Because of this airtime the Melvins seemed just as legit as Metallica, so I purchased all three of their major label records.

The point being: commercial success seemed absolutely possible for weirdo rock bands twenty years ago. How else can you explain the Breeders’ career?

2003: I am the music intern for Dayton, OH’s only alternative newspaper, Impact Weekly. Thus far, my career highlights include interviewing bar scene jam bands and penning a painfully dull article about some instrumental Christian prog band running around town.

The point being: I do not talk to platinum-selling rock stars on the phone. Ever. But my editor, Sara, passes me a scrap of paper with a number on it.

“Do you want to call Kim Deal?” she says. “I don’t want to.”

2013: I am listening to the twentieth anniversary edition of the Breeders’ Last Splash (LSXX). This is a major upgrade from the dubbed cassette version I owned in 1993.

LSXX has the big crossover radio hit “Cannonball,” of course. The rest of Last Splash is still just as brilliantly quixotic as ever. But it’s the lavish repackage as a whole and twenty years’ distance that reveals how absolutely strange its music is.

The point being: Last Splash is without a doubt the weirdest rock album ever to sell a million copies.

1993: Last Splash is a fitting title because this album will someday be seen as pretty much the end of the risk-taking, good-time music industry. Sorry, Melvins.

Sure, a record by a pair of attractive twin sisters from Ohio doesn’t seem like a total stretch. And yet, somehow, Last Splash is far more alien than anything occupying bestseller shelf space at the mall’s finer, fluorescently lit record shops—The Bodyguard soundtrack, Kenny G’s Breathless, even Nirvana’s In Utero.

The album is Kim Deal’s pop sensibility left out in the sun to bubble and warp. Here is the skewed songwriting mind that has frequently outshined her Pixies bandmate, Frank Black, in recent years.

On paper, Last Splash should completely drown under its weight: Pixies-style alt rock, surf stompers, hazy weed-soaked drizzle, instrumental chase scenes, and even a Bob Wills-ian country swing tune. Deal’s band chops up these tropes and duct tapes them into something surprisingly sturdy. Something absurdly catchy. Something so completely original nobody will even rip-off its style in the coming decades.

2003: We had the Wright Brothers and Jonathan Winters, but Kim Deal is easily Dayton’s most famous resident. The woman was friends with Kurt Cobain, for god’s sake.

She is also notoriously grouchy.

The Breeders have released their first album in almost a decade, Title TK, and apparently someone needs to grill Deal about it. “W-what do you want me to ask?” I say, hands shaking at my desk. My workstation is not that of a powerful journalist. As is the case with most low-wattage weeklies, the intern sits at a folding card table with an antique Apple desktop computer.

“Anything you want. Something about the album and the tour,” my editor says from behind her real, live wooden desk. “I think she hates me. I don’t want to talk to her.”

There is laughter from the other cubicles.

“Don’t be upset if Kim yells at you. She doesn’t like reporters.”

2013: LSXX includes the actual album, a live record, four EPs from the era and a disc of unreleased material.

The EPs are nice and the live set finds the band in tight form, closing with the underrated “Limehouse,” but none of it is too revealing. If anything, these extras illustrate how much The Breeders were pretty similar to every other chord-chugging college band in 1993. Throughout these bonus records, the hypercolor magic of Last Splash is tough to detect.

The same could be said for the demos and BBC sessions, except they do shine a light on Last Splash. The normalness of the “Divine Hammer” and “Saints” demos suggest it must be hard work being so weird. They hint that some serious changes occurred during recording.

1993: Inexplicably, “Cannonball” rolls up to #2 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart.

There, in The Breeders’ signature tune, is the DNA that makes Last Splash great. Its timing is wonky, the dueling female vocals are like a whispery choir and Josephine Wiggins’ bass sounds like it is strung with rubber bands.

And somehow those elements work and work well. Whenever you “Cannonball,” it sticks with you for days and you don’t know why. Just like the album.

2003: Kim Deal doesn’t even know she hates me yet.

She is not expecting my call, but her phone is ringing. I can’t think of a single question to ask.

There is no pressure. I could write a piece about Kim’s favorite pizza, and my editor would print it and pay me. (Strange but true: interns got paid in real, American currency back in 2003.)

The phone rings.

I have spent almost a decade living with Last Splash. That poor tape has meant so much to me you’d think I’d be dying to talk to her. I am not.

Deal is known to get drunk at the same bars I do. She probably shops at the same grocery store as me. Her home is not all that far from my dorm. And yet, she doesn’t seem to be of the same Dayton as me. She has a reputation, which most folks around town don’t.

The phone rings.

Kim Deal’s reputation gives me a panic attack. She’s a musical genius, she is a known drug abuser, she is Robert Pollard’s hero. I get a sense that actually knowing an artist with such a long shadow will change my relationship to Last Splash. I care so deeply for this record that I can’t stomach talking to its architect.

The phone keeps ringing, so I hang up with relief.

2013: Listening to LSXX I recall an article from the Nineties. Someone not afraid to interview Deal explained Last Splash’s recording process. Two studios in Dayton and one in San Francisco were used. Kim Deal claimed the album was really created in the editing process. I thought that was odd. A good song is a good song, right? And Last Splash was chock-full of them.

But digging deep into Last Splash’s demo tracks I see her point. It’s clearest on “Cannonball” (Fun Fact: originally titled “Grunggae”). The raw, incomprehensible chorus is there. The sweetly sung verses, too. But the ticky-tack drumbeat and bouncy bass are gone. All the song’s best moments are shuffled around and played at an unmemorable stomping pace. It is, sadly, kind of an average rock number.

Thankfully, “Cannonball” was eventually sliced and diced into its signature weirdo catchiness. That’s a gutsy change and we are all better off for it.

When the record ends, it leaves me thinking about changes.

Perhaps if I’d changed my reporting style in 2003 and tried phoning Deal’s house more than once—like a decent reporter—we would have become drinking buddies. Or sworn enemies. Or something other than strangers.

The same can be said for Deal changing her band’s signature album. If she wouldn’t have played dominoes with the pieces of some pretty okay tunes we wouldn’t have an unimpeachable alt-rock classic like Last Splash.

Some things, though, don’t change. In preparing this story The Breeders’ publicist cautions me that the band isn’t doing many interviews. The publicist will try if I really want, but she can’t guarantee I can speak to Kim Deal.

Once again, I breathe a sigh of relief.

 

About Patrick Wensink

Patrick Wensink (@patrickwensink) is the author of the bestselling novel Broken Piano for President and the essay collection Everything Was Great Until it Sucked. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Salon and many less-reputable sources. He lives in Louisville, KY.
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1 Response to The Weirdest Album to Ever go Platinum

  1. jmblaine says:

    There needs to be more writing about that bizarre era in the 90s when the record companies were going nuts & signing indie acts on name & look alone.
    Beavis & Butthead often played clips from this era, bands like Ween & Helium &…Skatman. Apparently RCA thought a balding guy in his mid-50s skatting over C&C Music Factory type tracks would somehow appeal to the 18-25 demographic.

    Running into The Ramones at Cracker Barrel is
    an image I will carry through the week.
    That is beautiful.

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