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The Breeders, ‘Last Splash’ (4AD/Elektra)

SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: August 31, 1993
Label: 4AD/Elektra

If rock’n’roll owns a season, summer is definitely it. Maybe not in the city, where the low throb of hip-hop rules the streets, but at the state fair, where the Matterhorn blasts Aerosmith and Pearl Jam. And in sun-baked stadiums, where tan boys and girls tuck their T-shirts in their belts and stagedive into swirls of dust. Come summertime, rock’n’roll is mating-call and calling- card, bearing the promise of blue skies, cold beer, and hot dates, eternally.

The Breeders’ second album spins out as a litany of summer — or rather, a summer of rock’n’roll. Its bright cymbal sound flashes off submerged lyrics about sunshine and water and steaming metal; the broiling guitars reek occasionally of surf. There’s a stubbornly harmonious pop song (“Do You Love Me Now,” from last year’s Safari EP), a bunch of effervescent pop rocks (“Cannonball,” “Divine Hammer,” “Saints”), and the now obligatory acoustic country shuffle (“Driving on 9”). Singer-guitarist Kim Deal and guitarist Kelley Deal jump-start the whole shebang with two minutes of the blistering “New Year” — as in “I am the sun / I am the new year” — and 12 songs later, Kim’s lazily sassing “summer is ready when you are,” as if the season’s some archetypal willing babe.

Or not. That line’s ambiguity (when will you be ready?) pulls us down into the tangle of gender politics under Last Splash‘s sun-fun surface noise. For in the mainstream, where rock music meets summer, girls haven’t had a lot to do besides don halter tops and dance on their boyfriends’ shoulders. And wear tight dresses to meet someone on a rooftop. And look really sleek in Daddy’s convertible. But what happens when the woman is the “I,” the man the “you,” and summer is seen from a girl’s-eye-view?

Well, first of all, the boys take a bath. In Last Splash, the male “you” is (a) a cannonball, (b) missing in action, or (c) a shadow of his former self. If you prefer (a) as your most positive image, try “Cannonball” on for size: An absurdly salacious guitar line runs head-on into drum-jacked frenzy, Kim following sister Kelley from acquiescence (“I’ll be your whatever you want”) to ire over the resulting wreckage. On the other hand, “Invisible Man” smoothes a slyly ethereal melody over chunky guitar, as our heroines moon over a lingering caress and then realize loverboy is all smoke and mirrors: “Catch him if you can.” The song fades to the tinkle of wind chimes (hee hee).

All is not resentment and cruel satire, of course: In their harmonizing heart of hearts, the Breeders would like you boys to like them. Live, these sisters (plus bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim MacPherson) are almost painfully unpretentious; Kim’s plain voice has my vote for the sound most likely to emit from the girl next door. They’re friendly hosts — they just don’t want to have to mutilate themselves to get you to stay. They’re willing to work, but they’re not sure you’re worth it. They’re the summer that’s “ready when you are.”

For the most part, though, Last Splash is caught up in what it means to be the subject — the voice of rock’n’roll — and what it means to be female. Like PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, Last Splash claims the spotlight—the sun —and has no trouble commanding the stage. Confidence propels the turbodelic “New Year,” while “Hag” sweetly and resolutely affirms the pleasure of performing —even amid snarling censure (that’s the “Hag” part). Finally, the Breeders subvert their playfully slight, stylized “Do You Love Me Now” (all passive melancholy) with a warm wind of demanding aggro on the bridge. Explicit desire is one rock tool the Breeders are psyched about utilizing.

But the ingratiatingly tuneful Last Splash is also marked by deliberate incoherence. Kim’s vocals are often drowned by guitars — or distorted into garbled ravings. Songs stutter and stop, only to rise again with startling fervor. The band has included two instrumentals (one called “SOS”); another track, “Roi,” is pretty much indecipherable — a pastiche of smeared distortion, muted vocal musings, hills and valleys of volume, and a repeated hard rock signature. It’s haunting, but I have no idea what it means. What it feels like, though, is that the sisters Deal are lined up with Polly Harvey, questioning whether the rock’n’roll that’s made an outsider of their gender can be trusted to get across both their love and their dissatisfaction. The Breeders want to tear down as much as they want to move in — which leaves them sifting through the tenets of rock for those they can use, and sometimes finding themselves without a known vehicle for the stories they want to tell. Or, as Kim herself puts it lightly on “Driving on 9”: “Looking out my windowsill / Wondering if I want you still / Wondering what’s mine.” For the everygirl Breeders, the promise of summer is still up in the air.