The Breeders Create Contained Chaos on ‘All Nerve’

The Breeders are something of a family affair, bringing together Kim Deal (formally) of The Pixies and her identical twin sister Kelley Deal. Originally formed by Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly (of Throwing Muses), The Breeders have been widely applauded for creating music that is angular and slanted, yet delightfully infectious. Kurt Cobain famously drooled over them. After a long history of lineup changes, they’ve reunified in the formation of 1993’s “Last Slap.” Their new album, “All Nerve,” captures the spirit of that era, but still sounds modern, as The Breeders have always sounded ahead of their time.

The opening track, “Nervous Mary” begins with guitar and vocals stumbling through melodies unhindered by pacing constraints and unconcerned with maintaining any illusion of rhythmic regularity. Kim Deal and crew feel the notes out, lingering a bit longer on particular ones if they feel like it, imparting a stream of consciousness feel to the music, and the sensation of discovery in real time. This has always been in The Breeder’s music. They use the standard building blocks of a pop song, but take great liberties in how they assemble them. Riffs and melodies are scrawled in shorthand, leaving you to fill in the gaps. When a beat drops, chord progressions ride erratically, lingering for an extra bar here and there. The timing is warped and off-kilter, but still locked a solid groove that allows for broad accessibility.

As no surprise, the first song turns out to be remarkably catchy. The climactic line, “Nervous Mary had a Nervous Day,” is delivered at the perfect moment, with such a pronouncement of punk sensibility that it just sounds badass. Up next, “Wait In The Car” should be a treat to any fan of Surfer Rose-era Pixies. There’s that quirky vocal intonation in Deal’s singing, and there’s all the daring and vitality of songs like “Bone Machine.”

One thing that might strike as rather out of place is the choruses on a couple tracks — “All Nerve” and “Spacewoman.” Each track builds up to a dramatic pause, upon which Deal delivers a line with a sort of cheeseball, bombastic gusto, whereupon the band erupts on cue into arena rock stadium histrionics. The hooks that follow are certainly effective as hooks. The presentation, however — the dressing, if you will —is a buzzkill. Deal’s huge, double-tracked vocals make for choruses like those of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” if they were less polished and less comfortable in context. The booming power-pop-type refrains can sound like a bit of a parody, as if they’ve been bookmarked for moments labeled “Insert grand chorus here.” They’re big rock indulges, with power chords and distortion, and they come across as too neat and square for a band that has always had an off-beat sensibility. A noisier treatment might have perhaps been more suitable.

An integral component to the unique appeal of The Breeders is Kim Deal’s voice. Standard practice for singers is to adopt all types of falsetto and vibrato gimmick and artifice, and try to sound pretty. Kim just sings every syllable of her songs in her natural voice. She’s like “Here I am, take it our leave it.” This gives her a singular and refreshing sound. The reality that it represents makes it resonate uniquely on a subconscious level. She always sounds unaffected and authentic. Much of her emotive effect is also due to how girly she sounds — but in a punk way; it imbues the music with a certain cuteness and feminine vivacity. Some of the most infectious moments on the album are the bits with her vocal harmonies.  

There are times when Deal is so off-key that it’s unclear whether she’s just not trying or perhaps instead trying deliberately to sound as if she’s not trying. Whichever the case, it’s an appropriate match for the music. One peculiarity of the Breeders is how they manage to sound so tight by sounding so loose. The guitars are raw and raucous, and they slur, stutter, ring, and meander in fastidiously seedy lines along drums played ever so slightly behind the anticipated beat. The instruments lock into the tightest grooves, but they’re always unscrewed at the ends.  It’s a sound of controlled chaos, a grand, concerted mess.

The Breeders have some fascinating lyrics, all quite abstruse and cryptic. They’re all rather open-ended, much like the sound of the music. Deal seems to embrace impulse and instinct as tools of creative expression, and she unabashedly churns out ideas of ideas that defy easy interpretation. She seems to know this, as she says, in “Wait in the Car,” “Consider I always struggle with the right word / Meow meow meow meow meow.” In the record’s title track, she says, “I won’t stop, I’ll run you down, I’m all nerve.” Sounds about right, and thank goodness for it. Popular music could use a bit more nerve, and The Breeders have certainly got plenty. And with this nerve, they manage to accomplish something very special. Their music sounds at once distant and immediate, convoluted but primal, cerebral yet unpretentious. Any old fans will be in for a treat, and any newcomers will be in for at least an adventure.

All Nerve” is available March 2 on Apple Music.