The Breeders' debut, Pod, is undoubtedly the album that changed my life, so you can imagine the anticipation that comes along with news of a new Breeders release. It last happened back in 2002 with Title TK, and now (a mere six years later) they're back again with Mountain Battles. In the case of Title TK, I loved it BECAUSE it was The Breeders, and anything they touch is gold in my book. However, Title TK was admittedly a departure from the band's previous output on Pod and Last Splash, and the album lacked any "Cannonball"s or "Fortunately Gone"s. It was raw, stark, lo-fi and almost experimental, and it left many a '90s Breeders fan confused.
I am now ecstatic to report that Mountain Battles is the culmination of all the best things Kim Deal has ever done this side of The Pixies. It has its pop moments, its ballads, its major chord harmonies, its minor chord hauntings, and even a few foreign languages. Like Pod, it's lo-fi but at the same time doesn't suffer from underproduction. Like Last Splash, there isn't a single song that seems out of place or unfinished. And like Title TK, it breaks new ground for the band, whose line-up is mostly the same as on the 2002 album. Where Title TK felt like a whole new band had recorded it, Mountain Battles feels like a natural progression for The Breeders, incorporating their past without regurgitating anything or favoring any one phase over another.
It also interestingly incorporates world geography. "German Studies" is a catchy guitar pop song sung entirely in German; from there they travel east to "Istanbul" two songs later; and in another two songs, they're singing en Español on "Regalame Esta Noche," a cover sung by the band's other Deal, Kelley. I'm a big fan of Kelley independent of her work with Kim, and own both Kelley Deal 6000 albums as well as (gulp) the Last Hard Men album, a band she was in with Sebastian Bach, so I'm delighted when Kelley steps up to the plate on Breeders songs, and here she doesn't disappoint.
But I've gotten ahead of myself in all my excitement. Let's back up to the opener, "Overglazed," a perfect intro with a sunny disposition that incorporates an up-tempo beat, blissful guitars, and Kim singing the simple phrase "I can feel it!" on repeat, throwing in some "Oh, oh oh, oh oh oh oh" in between. That segues into the bass-tastic "Bang On," a song whose infectious beat is accentuated by a single bass note that sounds like it's being played on a hollowed-out upright bass so as just to capture its pluckiness without fussing much about its tone. It's another song that doesn't waste words; the bulk of the song's lyrics are variations on the line "I love no one / and no one loves me," sung in tandem by both Deals. It has the same kind of spunky charm that made Title TK's "Huffer" work so well.
"Night of Joy" is a melody driven number with a slightly slowed pace and a haunty feel, high on emotion and dramatic appeal. "We're Gonna Rise" takes us back to Pod with its slow drum beat and harmonious background vocals. It has the feel of a "Glorious" or "Metal Man," but shows an obvious growth from those early, more primitive songs. It's one of the prettiest songs on the album, and it leads well into the more frenetic pace of "German Studies," which is full of edge. The song gels exquisitely with its German lyrics, and would likely not sound near as right if sung in English; it just has some kind of sonic German je ne sais quoi (or, more appropriately, ich weiß nicht der) about it. And somehow, even if you don't speak a lick of German, you find yourself singing along and making up your own version of the lyrics.
"Spark" is, er, stark, and sees only vocals and jarry guitars. Its pace leads flawlessly into the drawl-y tempo of "Istanbul," layering plucky bass over shuffling drums a la Title TK's "The She." The entire drum line sounds like its either played a) solely with drum sticks beating on each other, or b) by two drummers playing the same drum line in tandem on a wooden surface. The chorus is shout-sung, with the Deals calling out "Where you going? / To the city! / Where you going? / To the city! / Where you going? / Istanbul!" Like "German Studies," it manages to capture a sound appropriate to its title, here presenting an Eastern vibe.
The next track, "Walk It Off," picks up the pace again and gets the toes tapping. I wouldn't be surprised to see this song as a single, given its hookyness, but it doesn't quite rise to the level of older favorites like "Saints" or "When I Was a Painter" because it lacks the kind of switch-up that made those songs so great and that The Breeders do so well. It feels a bit like they took the easy way out on this one. Still, it's a successful song, and it is followed by the aforementioned "Regalame Esta Noche," with a Spanish guitar intro that's sweet like a lullaby. The song is among the album's most striking, and was the first I found myself drawn to as I began to get to know the album. "Here No More" follows, continuing the lullaby feel in a quiet three-quarter time signature. The Deals again duet on vocals, and the harmonies, which remind me of "You and Your Sister," a This Mortal Coil song with vocals by Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly, create a very pretty little number.
They shake the pretty and bring back the noise for "No Way," then hit the mark bigtime with "It's the Love" — this album's answer to Last Splash's catchy pop songs. Finally, the title track closes the album with drama and style. The song is simply Kim singing over a faint organ, with occasional guitar notes that increase during the second minute of the song and ultimately climax towards the end. It closes the album thoughtfully and with poise.
Mountain Battles has just enough little hints of unpolishedness to keep it on the DIY side, but at the same time it reflects the skill and creative growth of the Deal twins & company. The press copy that I received for review was digital-only; I plan to buy the hard copy ASAP. Let me point out that as a music critic, I hardly ever buy music, since I get so much of it for free; but in the case of Mountain Battles, even though I already have the complete album on my iPod, I will without a doubt rush out to procure myself a hard copy. That, my friends, is true love.