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The Breeders - Mountain Battles

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Artist: The Breeders

Album: Mountain Battles

Label: 4AD

Review date: Apr. 3, 2008

Let's say you're in a philosophy course and you have a paper due. Your professor tells you there isn't any minimum number of pages, but that she generally expects around 20. It would take big-time guts to turn in a one-page paper - not an ill-considered, started-an-hour-before-it-was-due one-page paper, but a serious one-page paper that really attempted to wrangle with a philosophical problem and distill it into 300 well-written words. A paper that actually did that would be incredibly impressive, but more often than not you'd flunk.

It's not a perfect metaphor - there are no F's in music, at least not outside of school - but it begins to explain what the Breeders are up to, and why their first two albums were so awesome. Frontwoman Kim Deal will probably always be known as the Pixies' bassist, but the best Pixies album was actually the Breeders' Pod, which offered one great pop hook after another while presenting only the essence of each. After that came 1993's Last Splash, which won them their one hit ("Cannonball").

Mountain Battles is just the third album Deal has finished since then. The first two, the Amps' Pacer and the Breeders' Title TK, contained bursts of inspiration but otherwise were the sorts of one-page albums where you wonder if the student only started working on the paper an hour before it was due.

Here I'd like to back away from the term-paper metaphor, which makes it sound like Deal's failure to churn out fully-realized records is also a moral failing, or at least a matter of laziness. That may not be so. In fact, Deal's chutzpah is admirable, in a way. Most bands seem to think that the way to go is to make music that's impressive, loaded with strings and fancy production and vocal harmonies and other stuff that's so damn impressive that no one with ears can fail to be impressed, whether or not the music actually matters to them.

Of course, Deal was in a hugely popular band, and thus has the luxury of not having to impress anyone. But still, it's hard not to appreciate a band willing to take the tiniest little hook or the most insignificant little production technique and say, "That's it - that's what I want, and that's all I want." Yes, Deal has (in this reviewer's opinion, anyway) spent much of the past decade-plus missing the mark, but she's also made a bunch of music where her judgment was spot-on, and even when it isn't, her willingness to trust her judgment and not a bunch of bells and whistles still sets her apart.

Mountain Battles gets less right than Pod or Last Splash did, but hits the target more often than Pacer or Title TK. Either way, it's probably a bit better than you expect. "Walk it Off" ranks right up there with the Breeders' best songs - it's got a thumping bassline that sounds like it came straight from Last Splash, and a fantastic four-note hook. The album opener "Overglazed" is an echoing Krautrock jam (and a good one), except it doesn't last nearly long enough or develop enough to really become a jam. The quirky, funky "Bang On" has a texture that's so spare, it's almost daring; the closest reference point is probably the decidedly contemporary Tracy & the Plastics.

Deal's music may be simple, but it's not wearing blinders. It's notable that, although her style hasn't changed much in the past 15 years, something like "Bang On" couldn't have been made a decade ago. Her awareness of trends is nothing new. When the lo-fi trend broke, for example, Deal was all over it, recording covers of Guided by Voices' "Shocker in Gloomtown" and Sebadoh's "Freed Pig" for the Breeders' 1994 "Head to Toe" single and nicking those bands' haphazard feel for Pacer a year later. Similarly, "Bang On" sounds like it was inspired by electroclash. (A year or two late, maybe, but that's just the pace at which the Breeders work now, and the song is probably no worse for it.)

It's less clear what Breeders were thinking when they made some of the songs at the end of the album, like the cover of the Spanish-language tune "Regalame Esta Noche." That one's sung by Kelley Deal, and part of the appeal of both the sisters' voices is that it's hard not to feel like there's some ironic subtext going on, even when they're emoting in the way Kelley seems to be here. Either way, the slow tempos on "Regalame Esta Noche" and a few other songs on Mountain Battles don't really suit the Breeders, who sound best when their music whooshes by and drops a hook in your lap before you know what hit you.

Still, Mountain Battles has plenty to recommend on it. It isn't a flashy record that's going to top many year-end lists, but that's not what it's about. Like all Breeders records, it's an exercise in minimalism, in letting the hooks speak for themselves as much as possible. Here they succeed more often than not. More power to them.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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