Posts Tagged ‘kristin hersh’

THE BREEDERS’ FAMILY TREE

June 4, 2013

Supergroups, eh? Who’d have ’em? 1989 may seem like a long time ago now, but back then it turned out that a collaboration between two established indie rockers needn’t necessarily be filed under ‘tedious vanity project’. The Breeders were a revelation, conjuring fractious noise and sugar-sweet melody at every available opportunity, and writing some of indie rock’s best-loved classics along the way. A band this free-spirited was bound to be home to restless muses, of course, and with the most celebrated line-up reforming to coincide with the Record Store Day re-release of classic album ‘Last Splash’, this seems like a good time to take a look at The Breeders’ family tree…

THROWING MUSES

It begins here. When half-sisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly first began playing together in 1981, they couldn’t have imagined the imminent impact of their fascinatingly fractured post-punk on the nascent indie rock landscape. A blend of unconventional song structures, David Narcizo’s wonky rhythms and hallucinatory lyrics doesn’t look like much on paper, but where their contemporaries sparked fires, Muses songs positively burst into brilliant blue flames. Their early demos eventually caught the attention of 4AD label boss Ivo Watts-Russell, and before long the bemused band found themselves adored by critics and underground obsessives alike. The idiosyncratically talented Hersh wrote the bulk of the band’s material, dazzling and delighting on the bewitchingly batshit albums ‘Hunkpapa’ and ‘The Real Ramona’, but the feline yowl of Donnelly contributions such as ‘Not Too Soon’ suggested there was another significant voice amongst their ranks – one that would soon depart for pastures new.

PIXIES

There’s little to be said that hasn’t already been written about the influential screech of this Boston quartet, although it’s worth noting that their big break arrived when Fort Apache’s studio manager saw them supporting Throwing Muses. Before long they too had signed to 4AD, going on to record landmark debut LP ‘Surfer Rosa’ with the legendarily acerbic Steve Albini in 1987. Unimpressed by the Pixies’ screamily masochistic surf, the Big Black frontman famously dismissed them as “blandly entertaining college rock”, but regardless, the album was swiftly acclaimed as a classic. One particular highlight came in the relative anomaly ‘Gigantic’, sung by bassist Mrs John Murphy (aka Kim Deal) and soaring on a chorus so big you could stick a flag in it and legitimately claim to have discovered a new country. Tensions built between Deal and chief songwriter Black Francis, but the band soldiered on through another majestic album (1988’s sublime ‘Doolittle’) before eventually seeing their collective arse and temporarily disbanding.

THE BREEDERS

Kim Deal and Tanya Donnelly first discussed the idea of forming a new band when Throwing Muses toured Europe with the Pixies, eventually performing together under the clunky but refreshingly straightforward moniker ‘Boston Girl Super-Group’. One shit-hot demo later, they settled on The Breeders and signed to 4AD, recruiting English bassist Josephine Wiggs to accommodate Deal’s switch to guitar. Slint sticksman Britt Walford agreed to become a recording member under the pseudonym ‘Shannon Doughton’, and with Steve Albini at the helm, the fledgling band decamped to an Edinburgh studio. The resultant collection ‘Pod’ proved breathtaking: songs crawled out from under the horizon uttering otherworldly howls, punctuated by guitar lines that you could quite reasonably call ‘angular’ without having to look too shame-faced about it. The two songwriters meshed perfectly, and the album was simply stunning.

With Deal returning to the Pixies later that year, The Breeders became inactive until 1992 when they recorded the ‘Safari’ EP. Shortly thereafter, Donnelly left the band to pursue her own vision, and Deal asked her twin sister Kelley to fill the void – undaunted by trivial matters such as ‘not actually being able to play the guitar’, Kelley duly accepted. Following the addition of full-time drummer Jim Macpherson, this new line-up set out on the road with Nirvana before commencing work on their biggest commercial success: 1993’s ‘Last Splash’. Chiefly famous for the bouncing buzzsaw pop of lead single ‘Cannonball’ (and its attendant video, co-directed by Spike Jonze and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon), the record added irresistible hooks to the addictive wonders of their debut, and cemented claims that The Breeders were a serious force to be reckoned with.

BELLY

Following the first Breeders album, Tanya Donnelly officially and amicably left Throwing Muses, taking bassist Fred Abong with her to form a new outfit. Fleshing out the lineup with ex-members of hardcore punks Verbal Assault, Donnelly chose the name ‘Belly’, since the word itself was “both pretty and ugly” – the perfect encapsulation of their ethereal, folk-tinged alt-pop. The MTV-slaying single ‘Feed The Tree’, a sumptuous piece of off-kilter jangle, led 1993’s debut ‘Star’ to be nominated for two Grammys – a success which could not be replicated by the more rock-orientated rumble of follow-up ‘King’. In retrospect, the album rules as hard as anything else surfacing from the American underground in the mid-90s, but sterling anthems like ‘Now They’ll Sleep’ somehow failed to capture their audience’s imaginations as intensely as ‘Star’ had managed two years earlier. Donnelly’s first solo effort appeared in 1997, picking up where Belly left off, before her increasingly sporadic output softened steadily, as family life became her main priority.

THE AMPS

Kelley Deal’s heroin addiction was far from secret, and she entered rehab following an arrest for possession in 1994, thereby forcing The Breeders into a period of hiatus. Kim reacted with a solo project entitled Tammy Ampersand & The Amps, before shortening the name in time to record their sole LP, ‘Pacer’. Originally intending to play every instrument on the album herself, she moved to retain Jim Macpherson’s drumming talents before enlisting future Guided By Voices guitarist Nate Farley and Luis Lerma to complete the lineup. ‘Pacer’ built on the pop hooks of ‘Last Splash’ to create deliciously garagey bubblegum pop – ‘Empty Glasses’, in particular, sounds like its spent hours siphoning petrol from parked cars to spit on bonfires – but positive critical reaction didn’t translate into sales. In mid-96, the hard-touring band folded when Kim decided to gather a new lineup of The Breeders – which, inevitably, was short-lived.

THE KELLEY DEAL 6000

Upon leaving rehab in 1995, Kelley Deal elected to form a new band, pulling in favours from friends such as Jimmy Flemion from notoriously controversial slopsters The Frogs. First opus ‘Go To The Sugar Altar’ proved to be an unexpected treat, rich in gleefully shambolic experimentation and soaked in the sort of effortless melodicism that made ‘Last Splash’ such a universally instant favourite. Two years later, the band attempted to repeat the trick with ragged follow-up ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’, but their moment appeared to have passed. Commerical and critical indifference consigned the album to the bargain bins, and The Kelley Deal 6000 slowly evaporated.

THE JOSEPHINE WIGGS EXPERIENCE

Hertfordshire-born Josephine Wiggs didn’t exactly rest on her laurels following the dissolution of The Breeders. She embarked on a series of projects over the next few years, attempting to make her own mark with the ‘Bon Bon Lifestyle’ LP, released through the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal stable in 1996. Featuring former Spacemen 3/Spiritualized percussionist Jon Mattock – who also counted amongst Breeders alumni thanks to his contribution to the ‘Safari’ EP – the album drew from similar dreampop sources to Donnelly and the Deal sisters’ various outlets, and attracted reasonable reviews. But if ever a musical endeavour seems doomed from the get-go, it’s a bass player’s solo effort (notice how the heart sinks upon reading that phrase), and this was sadly no exception. Wiggs’ name simply wasn’t as recognisable as Kim or Kelley’s, and album sales reflected that anonymity. Shame.

AND THE REST…

At the turn of the millennium, the Deals formed a new line-up of The Breeders with Face To Face drummer Jose Mendeles and bassist Mando Lopez, resulting in the strange, sparse magic of ‘Title TK’ in 2002 and the poppier ‘Mountain Battles’ six years later. Factor in the reunion of the ‘Last Splash’ lineup and we’re just about up to speed, but there’s a handful of other acts worth mentioning since they form smaller branches of The Breeders’ family tree…

THE PERFECT DISASTER

Mining a similar source of Lou Reed-inspired pop to 80s acts like The Go-Betweens, The Perfect Disaster had been kicking around London in various forms before Josephine Wiggs joined in 1987. She stuck around long enough to play on the ‘Asylum Road’ LP and support the Pixies, which led to Kim Deal inviting her to join The Breeders in 1989.

GUIDED BY VOICES

Longtime friends with the Deal sisters as fellow natives of Dayton, Ohio, the terrifyingly prolific Guided By Voices appeared in the video to The Breeders’ cover of their own ‘Shocker In Gloomtown’. After the split of the (recently-reformed) ‘classic’ lineup, singer Robert Pollard made one album with the backing of Cleveland rockers Cobra Verde, before snatching up former Amps Jim Macpherson and Nate Farley for a lesser-regarded but still shit-kickin’ GBV in the late 90s.

DUSTY TRAILS

Another of Josephine Wiggs’ various outfits, Dusty Trails was a collaboration with Luscious Jackson keyboard player Vivian Trimble. Self-described as ‘mood music’, the band’s self-titled debut drew comparisons to French and Brazilian pop of the 1960s, and featured the vocal talents of country titan Emmylou Harris. Not quite ‘Cannonball’, then, but rather lovely nonetheless.

THE LAST HARD MEN

With the 6000 finished, Kelley Deal once again hooked up with Jimmy Flemion to form this hard rock supergroup, alongside Skid Row vocalist Sebastian Bach and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Jimmy Chamberlin. An album was recorded for Atlantic in 1996, but the label rejected the finished article, leaving Deal to release a limited pressing on her own Nice Records in 1998.

R. RING

Kelley’s latest project, a collaboration with Ampline’s Mike Montgomery. Debut 7” ‘Fallout And Fire’ was a scratchily lo-fi lullaby composed of sparse acoustic guitars and tinny electronic hums; as gorgeous and moreish as The Breeders’ more subtle moments and utterly charming with it. More please.

(Originally published by The Fly, 19/04/2013. At the time of writing, I was mistakenly under the impression that the reissue was related to Record Store Day 2013 – seemed pointless to correct the mistake here though, given that it had already been published)

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A change would do you good

October 14, 2010

Recently I’ve been reading Rock And Roll Cage Match (ed. Sean Manning), a collection of jovial essays in which the writer is asked to invent or describe a rivalry between two bands, and then pick a winner. Perhaps inevitably, it’s largely composed of self-confessed false dichotomies where half the fun comes from the ludicrous reasons as to why each artist should be at odds. It probably says something about the WHTB mindset that I love a good debate, so what better than a collection of intelligent-but-ludicrous arguments?

My favourite imaginary rucks thus far have come courtesy of Richard Hell (Rolling Stones vs Velvet Underground), Elizabeth Goodman (Guided By Voices vs Pavement) and Tom Breihan (Jay-Z vs Nas). The part that’s intrigued me most, however,  has come not from an actual debate, but rather an aside. Surprisingly, it’s part of Whitney Pastorek‘s sublimely daft bout between Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston that’s really set the cogs whirring.

Discussing what you’ll recognise as Houston’s all-time classic/omnipresent saccharine cackfest (delete as appropriate), Pastorek provides a winning argument for the power of an oft-used musical device:

The Catharsis: the glorious boom of a key change that occurs three quarters of the way through I Will Always Love You, anchoring what is, with apologies to The White Stripes, the best Dolly Parton cover in history. The Catharsis is in effect elsewhere throughout Houston’s career… but the modulation she pulls off in I Will Always Love You is perfection embodied.

That’s exactly what a good key change should do. Admittedly I wasn’t even thinking about key changes when I’d started reading the piece, but by this stage I was sat bolt upright, nodding, with stern features and a fist raised triumphantly. You’re darn right to use the word ‘catharsis’, Whitney Pastorek. Switching key at any point during a song, and pulling it off, is a tricky feat… but save it for a chorus (particularly the final chorus) and you’re onto a surefire winner. Even fucking Westlife knew that, for fuck’s sake. It’s a useful weapon in the pop arsenal. And like it or not, that Whitney H number’s a pretty fucking good example of how to wield it.

Pastorek goes on so enthusiastically that it seems pointless to paraphrase:

I fail to find a way to break this down scientifically, or even articulately; all I can hope is that you have experienced a great key change at some point in your life and you know the rush, the transcendent ping that goes off in your brain and brings emotions you barely knew you had rushing to the surface and spilling out all over the place for no good reason whatsoever. A good key change can save your life.

As someone who has been close to spontaneously breaking into tears on hearing a great key change at a live show, I know exactly what she means (YES, beer was involved. NO, I don’t think that matters). So with that in mind, here’s some of WHTB’s favourite key changes in pop. Nothing so crass as a top five… just some good ‘uns (okay, five), avoiding yer Hey Judes and soforth.

Feel free to suggest your faves.

1. Dance, Dance, Dance – The Beach Boys

A barnstorming classic from the non-surfing surf faves. Dig the way the song suddenly lurches into a higher key halfway through the final verse – and in a song that’s barely got time for verses, that’s a special way of preparing you for one last extra-fun take on the hook. On the dancefloor, that’s the bit that gets your toes from twitching to out and out tapping.

2. Crazy Crazy Nights – KISS / Town Bike

KISS opt for a stranger tactic – after the second chorus, just before the solo, there’s suddenly a brief burst of chorus in a higher key. Why? No-one knows. It’s fucking awesome though. And as a special treat, I’ve linked Town Bike’s free download version, which is so darn good that I now struggle to listen to the original.  Get on it.

3. Summerteeth – Wilco

After two lovely verses of cryptic, countrified pop, Wilco switch key for a mellotron solo that seems to have wandered in from another band. Once that’s over, we’re still in this new key for a final, breezily- plaintive verse and a gorgeous “oo-ooh, aa-aah” backing vocal. Which is frankly ruined by attempting to spell it. Just go and have a listen; you owe it to your ears.

4. Alison’s Starting To Happen – The Lemonheads

Despite the perky pace of the tune, Evan still uses a sleepy drawl to tell us of an unexpected crush on a friend, and all’s good. But for one final verse, as he finally gets his head around the nonsense of the situation, the song lifts in time for the exclamation “this world is topsy-turvy!” From thereon in things get rather more frantic – and yeh, pretty fun too.

5. Bright Yellow Gun – Throwing Muses

Kristin Hersh specialises in fragmented poetry and creepy melodies, even on full-pelt alt rockers like this. The change is superbly effective; suddenly the tension’s cranked up and a pretty-fucking-vital-already song suddenly becomes essential. Ace.

Love and trust and friends and hammers

July 20, 2010

Although a thick, Septemberish grey is currently hanging over us in Liverpool, it’s still summertime. Admittedly, without the dazzling sunshine of previous weeks, there ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on but the rent, motherfucker, so we’re gonna have to make this summer pretty special. WHTB is currently getting excited about the forthcoming weekend’s trip to Butterley in Nottinghamshire for the Indietracks festival – a weekend of booze, fun and indiepop in the midst of the East Midlands’ foremost railway museum. It’s been a full two years since the tent last saw daylight, and ‘excited’ doesn’t quite do justice to the anticipatory feelgood factor at WHTB HQ.

With The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart amongst the headliners, you can betcha sweet ass there’s some party heads being warmed up. There’s also a plethora of other bands (notably SHRAG) and friends that I’m pretty stoked to be seeing. It’s gonna be AWESOME. I won’t say ‘expect a full report’, because I’ve made and subsequently broken promises like that before. But hopefully there’ll be some words scribbled down to communicate my gibbering glee.

AWESOME!

recent listening:


Projekt A-Ko – Yoyodyne

Buffalo Tom – Birdbrain

Red House Painters – Retrospective

Leatherface/Hot Water Music – BYO Split Series Volume 1

Beach House – Devotion

William’s Wish Wellingtons (birthday compilation made by MD)

Guided By Voices – Alien Lanes

Guided By Voices – Box

Kristin Hersh – Hips And Makers

peace out

w x

Mix Tapes 1: “i dubbed the tunes in perfect form”

July 19, 2010

One of the most exciting things about music is sharing it. Whether you’re a casual fan with open ears or an obsessive who just loves to give the gift of perfect sound, it’s a great feeling to know you’ve turned someone on to something new that you can both love. It’s easy to do that in the wake of the digital revolution – mp3s, Spotify playlists or even quick links to Youtube/Myspace have ensured that no-one need wonder what a band sounds like for too long. But in the not-too-distant past, we used mix tapes.

Far more eloquent articles have been written about mix tapes than these humble pages are likely to host, and in any case WHTB was part of the last generation to maintain any interest in the cassette format. I’m certainly writing more in the manner of a grumpy old coot than I have any right to at the age of 28, no matter how deftly I dust off my newly-acquired rose-tinted spectacles. It therefore seems daft, dear reader, to bore you at length with theory. But here’s a few words you may have heard used to describe magnetic tape: outdated, clunky and bereft of many of the conveniences of newer technology. Strange, then, that a new wave of hipsters have apparently deemed it a valid format in this day and age. Surely it should have died out by now?

And yet there is something magical about cassettes – or more specifically, the art of the mix tape. A properly constructed compilation demands time, effort, draftsmanship and a real mastery of the pause button. Whilst mix CDs are not without their charm, there’s something infinitely less romantic about a selection of songs ripped from a computer hard drive and burned to disc in mere minutes. Mix tapes are made with love – which is why they make such ideal presents for a friend or lover. As a teenager, WHTB learned at least as much about certain friends from this simple craft as he ever did from the hours blissfully wasted in their company.

That’s why I’ve decided to put together this occasional series – I’ll be going through my mix tapes and analysing them. Perhaps not in too great detail – just enough to trigger some memories and wallow in simple nostalgia. I’m a sentimental fool these days.

Please feel free to share any memories of your favourite mix tapes below.

Just William / Muses + Shakers – Crushed By Eyeliner

The first tape I’m going to look at was a present in 1999… it was given to me at an open day at Liverpool University, by a friend that i regretfully don’t see too often these days. In any case, it’s a prized item in the mix tape library.

Side A (Just William) is pretty eclectic – I’ve not received many tapes with an opener as surprising, fun or indicative of the compiler as Science Fiction from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then it’s straight into a track by late-90s Liverpool punks Dog Flambé (who featured a young Doc Horror of Zombina & The Skeletones fame), which is as good a reminder as I’m ever likely to get of the time. There are tracks from forgotten 90s nearly-weres like Octopus, Black Box Recorder and Drugstore. There’s a track by unlamented never-weres Spy ’51 (who i liked at the time, perhaps because of the band’s association with Fierce Panda Records). Most significantly, there are tracks by bands whose names I can’t hear without at least thinking in passing of the maker of the tape: Veruca Salt and The Dandy Warhols. Even looking at the tracklist eleven years on, I’m immediately transported back to a summer holiday that I spent listening to this tape over and over again. Ah, trusty walkman, you were good to this one.

Then there’s the second side, Muses + Shakers. Again, this consists entirely of acts who are inextricably linked to the guy who put them together onto 45 minutes of tape: Kristin Hersh, Throwing Muses and Belly. This run of 14 songs was a perfect introduction to three great acts – they’re all wonderful.

I’m still very, very grateful for this tape. It’s superb. It’s a reminder of a great summer, and also of an afternoon spent in the company of old friends who have all moved away or drifted into different social groups. Which happens to us all, of course, but sometimes it’s just nice to have little reminders like this – a soundtrack to the narratives we create around our lives, to ensure certain scenes will always have their songs.

Just in case I didn’t say it at the time, thank you.