Mountain Battles (4AD)
By Scott Deckman
It’s been six years and a run at sober living, but alternative titan Kim Deal has finally breathed life into a new Breeders release, Mountain Battles. Closer sonically to Title TK than the epochal Last Splash, Deal has shifted further to the left on the Breeders fourth LP with mixed results. And for all of those diehards hoping for the expected Pixies record, you try getting along with Charles Thompson for a couple years. And as if to make things crystal clear to said fans, this record sounds nothing like the music she played to thousands of adoring fans during that moneymaking bonanza.
Like 2002’s Title TK, this is a harder sell than her previous work from the ’90s, with no bona fide readymades like “Cannonball,” “Saints” or “Tipp City” (from her Breeders’ hiatus band the Amps) in the mix, which proves as she’s gotten older, she’s also gotten bolder in her expectations of her audience. This is thinking woman’s rock. And lo-fi, a turn she first took with the short-lived Amps, is a vehicle she still drives on Mountain Battles a good bit of the time. And speaking of lo-fi, I’m not sure what it means that the album’s strongest track, “It’s the Love,” is a cover of fellow Dayton, Ohio, band the Tasties (and according to an interview she gave, she’s not even on the track; it’s her twin and fellow-Breeder Kelley singing and playing guitar), but it may say more about this reviewer’s tastes than the efficacy of Kim’s new work. Whatever the case may be, “It’s the Love” is a glorious mess of discordant guitar riffs, melodic drive, and Kelley’s doppelganger Kim vox. Though a musical brethren of Title TK, Mountain Battles lacks that record’s focus, which wasn’t exactly razor-sharp to begin with. The record’s other antecedent – and it’s an admitted stretch – the Amps’ Pacer, was a more glazed, tuneful affair, regardless of Mountain Battles‘ first song bearing the name “Overglazed.” Maybe she is over that type of glaze. Or maybe I’m searching for irony and truth where there is none.
While this may be her most challenging and unfocused record to date, it’s not without its own pleasures and a sense of the dynamic. Two foreign language songs, “German Studies” and “Regalame Esta Noche” – the record’s other cover, also sung by Kelley – are odd, but add color to the palette, and the sisters can get away with it with their distinctive voices: They could sing the phone book and make it sound pretty. The former is a bouncy, fun track that you’d have to speak the language to understand, and the same can be said for “Regalame Esta Noche,” a passionate, almost maudlin ballad full of plucked guitar splendor written by Roberto Cantoral. And keeping with the foreign obsession, “Istanbul” features a Middle-Easternish chant-like chorus that’s as weird and trippy as anything on the record.
“Here No More,” a folkish, almost religious, pensive duet by sisters Deal, is a spiritual cousin to “Drivin’ on 9,” the country-tinged road song from Last Splash, while “Night of Joy,” with Kim at her most ethereal and dreamy, reminds one of Title TK‘s “Off You.” While both songs are sadly beautiful, only the former hints at hope. “We’re Gonna Rise” is a pensive call to better tomorrows which uses the sun as healing metaphor. But you can’t dismiss the foreboding rhythm that braces the track; you get the feeling that nothing is easy for this woman. “Walk It Off” is a bouncy thing, one of the few upbeat, mid-tempo rockers on the disc, and it too alludes to temperature, with the chorus “Oh mercury.” Only this time, she says it’s “fallin’.” Typically inscrutable, the song on the surface seems to be about a band gigging and the machinations surrounding the whole shebang. But like a lot of her oeuvre, digging deep is half the fun. Album closer and record namesake “Mountain Battles” is more performance art than song, with Kim singing slowly, hypnotically, over spare guitar. After repeated listenings to Mountain Battles, it’s clear Deal doesn’t care what you think, she’s doing what she wants.
Courtney Taylor-Taylor once sang he wanted a girl “as cool as Kim Deal” on the song of the same name on 1997’s … The Dandy Warhols Come Down, a tacit admission from the pretty boy leader of the Portland group that even beauty and slacker noir posing has its limits. Cliché line of the nascent century: Kim’s the Real Deal. Even on an uneven record like this, on some songs at least, her muse still shines brightly.