Unless it’s time for early-’90s nostalgia already, I’m guessing that Title TK, the Breeders’ long-awaited, then forgotten-about, then miraculously released follow-up to 1993’s ultrahuge Last Splash, doesn’t contain any of what contemporary A&R goons like to call “focus tracks”alt-rock or otherwise. For one thing, there’s been a musical sea change since the group’s last splash. For another, the band’s leader, Kim Deal, and her I’m-the-leader-too sister, Kelley Deal, don’t seem interested in winning popularity contests this time around: The adventurous, anti-commercial music these cat-fighting siblings have finally kissed-and-made-up is disjointed, murky, and, in places, downright irritating. Title TK has a bad, claustrophobic beat, in other words, and hardly anyone is going to dance to it.
That’s my prediction, and I’m sticking to it. Because, circa 2002, it’s a safe bet that a sonically challenging/blessedly fucked-up record like this one isn’t going to fire even an ember of corporatized public imagination. Not after a half-decade of sometimes-amusing candy-coated dance pop, on the one hand, and mostly soulless synthetica and connect-the-dots punk on the “alternative” other. True, bands such as blink-182 and Jimmy Eat World have somehow managed to connect with sizable audiences, and, also true, when I saw Dashboard Confessional a couple of months ago, every single person in the crowd (minus one) sang along with every single word. But please, God, help us.
Clocking in at 40 years each, the Deal twins are old enough to remember when radio matteredand astute enough to observe that that was then and this is most definitely now. Thus, Title TK is uncluttered by the kind of pop-chart ambitions that might have spoiled it all and pegged the record as a doomed-to-fail “comeback effort.” The gals, in fact, couldn’t even be bothered to come up with a name for their album: “TK” is journalistic shorthand for “to come,” hardy har har. As caustic as it’s cryptic, Title TK is beholden only to the Deals’ drug-addled pleasure principle, a troubled recent past, and their good historical fortune to have been on the scene during a suddenly ancient-seeming time in pre-homogenized indie-rock history.
Kim, of course, wasn’t just on the scene; she was of it, playing bass and being radiant in a little ol’ band from Boston called the Pixies. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. For the record, there’s nothing on Title TK that comes within ring-kissing distance of the great “Gigantic,” the epic tune that Kim wrote and sang on the Pixies’ still-amazing debut LP, 1988’s Surfer Rosa. That track, along with her sheer rock goddessness and fondness for pool and lukewarm Budweiser, made Kim mad-crush fodder for countless indie boys whose unrequited swooning no doubt gave the movement known as emo just the momentum it needed to make it onto MTV. Kim, to put it modestly, was the belle of the indie-rock ball, even if she was credited on the early Pixies’ discs by her married moniker, Mrs. John Murphy.
Kim’s a little wiser now, a little rougher-looking, and back from conquering what was allegedly a fairly serious little drug problem. There’s no “fairly” to it for her sister, howeveror any “little,” for that matter. Following an arrest for heroin possession in the mid-’90s, Kelley got clean, formed the Kelley Deal 6000, got dirty again, and then missed the early days of recording Title TK for reasons that remain mysterious.
And yet if Kim is the brains of the operation (and she isall but two of the disc’s songs are credited to her exclusively), Kelley is the heart. It was her how-do-you-play-this-thing-again? guitar technique that made Last Splash’s incandescent “Cannonball” such a happy Top 40 accident, and, at least conceptually, her inspired amateurism powers this disc, too, albeit mostly in a low-wattage, short-attention-span kind of way. Title TK is sparse and chaotic, replete with what sounds like half-remembered chord changes, fragments of haunting melodies, and sonic dynamics that downshift abruptly, seemingly of their own accord.
Ironically, though, the disc opens with a sturdy-sounding kick drum, as supplied by new drummer Jose Medeles. (Former skinsman Jim MacPhersonaka “Mike Hunt”apparently got tired of waiting for the Deals to get it together and went off and joined Guided by Voices.) That beat is a rhythmic lifeline the band clings to throughout the cacophonous and dirgy “Little Fury”; it even supplies a punch line of sorts for Kim’s otherwise random lyrics: “My big drum/On your big face/The one-eyed jazz/As hickeys fade/Grindcore little fury/If I don’t black out.”
But she does, mostly: For those about to drop, Kim salutes you. Title TK is one woozy record, a listless 12-track lullaby that scans mainly as a wobbly tribute to feeling hazy and washed-outand also very tragically sexy. “Off You,” for instance, presents muffled, gorgeously spacious chamber pop as sublime make-out music, elegantly debauched in a candlelight-
and-Velvet Underground sort of way. With Mando Lopez serving up a sensuously rolling bass line, Kim checks in with elliptical, heartbroken words while Kelley pulls bass-pedal duty: “I am the autumn in the scarlet,” Kim sings ruefully. “I am the make-up on your eyes.” The similarly brooding “Put on A Side” is more menacing than reflective, a single sentence stretched thin across a rumbling bass line and, toward the song’s fade, a spastic drum roll that feels like a seizure.
Elsewhere, things get a little rowdier. “The She,” which dates from 1999 and features just the twins, is a grating squawkfest, complete with an organ that alternately hums and burps and those supercreepy atonal harmonies that Kim first imperfected with Tanya Donelly on the Breeders’ pre-Kelley debut, 1990’s Pod. Stuttering and haphazard, the track sounds like something the two made up during a particularly drunken sound check. “Too Alive” is a lumbering, Pixies-style anthem as played through a thick swab of cotton. And the chunky “Son of Three” is the closest the band is gonna get to rekindling the fractured power pop of earlier tracks such as “Cannonball” and “Divine Hammer.” Kim, of course, uses the occasion to tell you so, albeit rather enigmatically: “That’s what you get/When there’s no time on the meter/You get/An empty case/Of wip-its/And a boyfriend with a beeper.”
As engaging as Title TK is, though, producer and bad-vibe creator Steve Albini does what he can to spoil the fun throughoutas per usual. But the Deals and their entourage (stolen mostly from crumbled L.A. punk institution Fear) usually get the better of him, transforming his dry-as-dirt production setting into their own sonic playground and promptly leaving him on the wrong end of the seesaw. Why Albini remains a sought-after alt-rock production dork is beyond me. Almost everything he touches turns to desiccated shit, and the few records that have emerged unscathed from his ascetic “recording” have done so by transcending it. Nirvana’s In Utero and Surfer Rosa, as well as Pod, are among the survivors, as are the incendiary albums from Albini’s own old-school outfit, Big Black.
Add most of Title TK to that list. It’s an unconventional record, and all the more admirable for its apparent indifference to commercial calculation. Sure, the song structures could be tighter, the melodies more incisive, and the playing sharper, but what would be the point of that? There’ll be a new Third Eye Blind record any day now, I’m sure. And who knows? Maybe some subversive head honcho over at Elektra will discover a couple of focus tracks, after all, and get the Deals into heavy rotation on a Clear Channel stationor 400. If so, thank God: It’s gonna be one cruel summer. CP