The Breeders - Webster Hall - 12/20/2013
"Oh, like the '90s?" I heard that from at least five people when I mentioned I was seeing the Breeders. "DORKS!" I heard that from Kelley Deal, loud and in on the joke, while seeing the Breeders. I'm going to try really hard to write this without harping on '90s dorks, but it's sort of unavoidable given the subject. The Breeders, straight off a hugely feted reissue of Last Splash - a cult classic whose cult drew in millions and whose biggest single, "Cannonball," lodged itself and its shimmy of a riff fast into the memory of anyone who ever watched a Buzz Bin clip - spent the year touring the album (and, on occasion, its predecessor Pod). All year, they charged once more unto the festival circuit, brought in as many twenty-somethings as pilgrimage-taking Gen Xers, and arguably made 2013 as triumphant for the Breeders as anything in the decade that won't be named.
Friday's show wasn't the first Last Splash show in New York - that happened in March - but it was the biggest, featuring not only both of the first two albums but also most of the original lineups and even the original Minimoog, because why not. It also offered a welcome check-in with one of the band's many successors: In an inspired bit of booking, the night started with Speedy Ortiz, one of several new, often all-female or female-fronted acts that fall somewhere on the spectrum from college rock to pop-punk and whose fandom of the Breeders and their ilk falls somewhere from subtle to blatant. En masse, they've drawn a fervent, if even more cultlike, version of the old guard's buzz, but Speedy Ortiz's sense of humor set them apart - as you'd expect from a band whose frontwoman Sadie Dupuis dreamed up an all-female Pavement tribute act called Babement and a Sebadoh tribute called Shebadoh. Standouts from their set included rat-girl anthem "Hexxy Sadie" and "Taylor Swift," a sorry-not-sorry note signed with a smiley face and a pop-culture stamp ("I've got too many boyfriends to see you tonight") that's fitful enough not to be obvious. For anyone familiar with their scrappy house shows, their set was their its own triumph, sounding robust enough on the Webster Hall stage to take on the greats that'd come next.
Speedy Ortiz weren't the only benefactors of the stage. This is going to come off either stupid or obvious for those whose Breeders concert experience doesn't come from YouTube or 20-year reunions, but Last Splash needs to be heard live. Take "Roi"; as track five, it's a grind between fuzz and silence, which is striking as an idea and compelling on record, but live it's colossal, a battle between big sound and bigger silence. Deal's voice, small in the original mix, rises like smoke off an explosion it is the closest music comes to sounding like a battlefield. (There's fuzz, too; at times the Last Splash set comes off like a wobbly, distorted remix you'd find lying around some stray SoundCloud.)
Pod fared even better, tracks like "Doe" and "Hellbound" thrashing out of their unassuming confines and Kelley sweetening Kim's vocals as ably as original bandmate Tanya Donelly did. (Kim might have been the draw for much of the crowd, but Kelley was the heart. As lead on "I Just Wanna Get Along," she managed to sigh "I just wanna get along" with all the defeated comedown from one of the most honest post-breakup tracks in existence, while simultaneously coming off as the happiest person who's ever been on a stage.)
Each track seemed momentous; part by performance, part by design. In a review of the LSXX reissue, Pitchfork's Lindsay Zoladz wrote: "With Last Splash, the Breeders were poised to ride the cresting alt-rock wave that the Pixies had inspired but just missed out on, and when the Pixies reunited in 2004, the mounting nostalgia for late 80s/early 90s indie rock made it the perfect time for a long-delayed victory lap." Almost ten years later, the timing's (again, coincidentally) even better; off the dome: My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star, and Nine Inch Nails (whose show Webster Hall commemorates on its plaque) all staged comebacks. Depending on your particular age and view of nostalgia, this is either great or terrible. Regardless, retromania was undeniably part of the draw here; every other track came with a reliable backing track of "finally!" or "I can die now" from the surrounding crowd. (On Thursday, Kim Gordon was reportedly in attendance, which has to be some kind of Peak Nostalgia.)
But as clichéd as remember-the-'90s sentiment (fine, I said it) can seem, retromania is forgetful. For every Breeders show-slash-canon ball, or Throwing Muses putting out a lauded career-best album, there's a Pixies putting their career out like a used candle, or - the part no one talks about - a Bettie Serveert or Tanya Donelly, who release solid-to-shattering work (the former's zippy Oh, Mayhem!, the latter's Swan Song series of five[!] EPs) but slip nostalgia's selective memory. The reissue cycle can seem tired, the music industry unearthing a feted 10- or 20-year-old album a week from underneath its pile of trophies to throw more trophies at; but sometimes the trophies are deserved. The Breeders closed their set with a new track; "Walking with a Killer," a Deal solo piece fleshed out live as the encore. As recorded, "Walking With a Killer" is a spindly thing, drum fills and tentative bass and hesitation fitting the title; live, it has muscle that stands up against two of the most classic albums of their decade. And two of many; one of the best things about getting into the Breeders is getting into the dozens of albums their influence has splintered across. Sometimes, the nostalgia machine does right.
Random notebook dump: You know one name that doesn't get brought up as an influence on all this nu-90s-alt rock (I mean, do you have a better description) as often as it could? Tuscadero. Basically, 2013 has produced at least three The Pink Albums.
Critical bias: 2013 producing at least three The Pink Albums is one of the better parts of 2013. But I also saw Last Splash twice this year (first at Pitchfork, then here), and the Throwing Muses and that dog. reunions were my favorite shows in their respective years, so I'm gonna go ahead and say I'm a targeted demographic.
Set list on next page