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Why The Breeders' Last Splash still matters; Spiritualized is as strong as music gets

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The Breeders' Last Splash is one of a handful of albums that should not be experienced without some idea of its context in indie rock's rise from the underground to become one of today's important mainstream pop genres, thanks in part to the Internet and digital media outlets such as Pitchfork. The 1993 LP—which the reunited Breeders will perform in its entirety Saturday night at Raleigh City Plaza—is not merely a classic. It's pivotal.

At the dawn of the '90s, the decade that would transform the way pop audiences hear music and melody, I sat at a dinner table with Pixies frontman Black Francis, one of the key architects of that transformation. The Pixies had just released their third album in as many years, 1990's Bossanova. Like the band's previous releases, it mixed sweet pop melodies with ear-splitting noise and distortion in a finely balanced recipe of feathery soft and then brutally loud dynamics—often within the same song. I was writing a cover story on the band for the indie music magazine Option.

The interview had gone well until I wondered aloud why bassist and backup singer Kim Deal seemed to have less of a role this time out. After all, Deal had turned in two of the Pixies' more memorable earlier songs—the spooky, anthemic pop song "Gigantic" on 1988's Surfer Rosa, and an inventive Appalachian folk-like dirge called "Silver" on the following year's Doolittle. What's more, her recent side project with Throwing Muses' Tanya Donelly, the Breeders, showed Deal to be a fount of interesting musical ideas. One would think she would be contributing more to the Pixies, not less.

"I write the songs," Black Francis spat back at me. He was suddenly livid. "Back when we weren't making any money, I wrote the songs, and then we got fairly successful doing things that way. Why should that change? I'm really stubborn and kind of arrogant about this stuff. ... And if anybody has a problem with that, they can leave, you know?"

Within two tension-filled years, the Pixies were kaput, and Kim Deal had become an inspiration to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, who had recently taken the Pixies' ideas about loud/soft dynamics to the top of the pop charts in the music he wrote for Nevermind. "I wish Kim [had been] allowed to write more songs for the Pixies, because 'Gigantic' is the best Pixies song, and Kim wrote it," Cobain told the British music magazine Melody Maker in 1992, the year the Breeders opened for Nirvana in the U.K.

By then, Deal and her twin sister Kelley—who replaced Donelly—had honed the Breeders' sound for a new EP, Safari, which revealed a proper band that was no longer merely a side project. When Last Splash followed in '93, the transformation was complete. Gone were the overt Black Francis influences heard on songs such as "Doe," from the Breeders 1990 debut, Pod. On Last Splash, sweetly hissing pop vocals hovered over roiling squalls of churning guitars on "Invisible Man," which featured a bent melody cribbed from British shoegazers My Bloody Valentine. But there were also moments of spare, purely American pop beauty, like the slow but muscular "Do You Love Me Now?", along with full-throttle rock instrumentals ("Flipside," "S.O.S."), gently churning indie rock ("Divine Hammer") and even a slightly twisted alt-country tune ("Drivin' on 9").

And then there was "Cannonball," the stuttering, syncopated pop single that shot to No. 3 on Billboard's modern rock charts, making Last Splash a platinum-selling album and an inspiration for generations of young women who dreamed of fronting their own bands. That was something Kim Deal's earlier band with Black Francis never achieved, no matter how important the Pixies were to modern music.

"With 'Gigantic,' Kim had a good idea," Black Francis had said to me during a more complaisant, if also slightly condescending moment in that earlier interview. "I said, 'Why don't you write it? 'Gigantic' would be a cool title.'"

It was more than a good idea and cool title. It was gigantic.

Sharing headliner status with the Breeders on Saturday's City Plaza bill are legendary British space-rockers Spiritualized, fronted by former Spacemen 3 co-founder Jason Pierce since the dissolution of that band in 1990.

Spiritualized's lineup has evolved, morphed and mutated over the past two decades, much like the symphonic tracks that make up the group's 1997 milestone Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Over that album's 12 tracks of shimmering, repetitive guitars, keyboards, horns and even a gospel choir, Pierce quotes everything from Elvis Presley's "I Can't Help Falling in Love" to country-folk singer John Prine's despairing ballad about drug addiction, "Sam Stone."

An overarching theme to Pierce's musical vision is the creative power and ultimate destructiveness of drugs on spirituality, art and everyday life. Another is a dedication to improvisation. For a guy whose first band recorded an early album with the memorable title Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, Pierce's obsessions have proved to be self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the time of Spiritualized's 2001 release, Let It Come Down, Pierce was employing more than 115 musicians, including an orchestra, for songs such as the 10-plus-minute "Won't Get to Heaven (The State I'm In)" and the dirge "Lord, Can You Hear Me?", in which he whispers over a gospel chorus lines such as, "Lord, I'm feelin' so weary, you'd better call a doctor in ... I believe I'm damaged, I believe that I'm wrong, I believe my time ain't long."

Indeed, Pierce has suffered from the ravages of drug abuse; in 2005, he was hospitalized and nearly died from a lung infection, and he takes medication for a damaged liver. He has said that the placement of the word "Huh?" on the cover of the latest Spiritualized album, 2012's Sweet Heart Sweet Light, is a reference to his muddled thoughts while on his medication. The album is more taut and pop-focused than past Spiritualized fare, although "pop" is relative for Pierce, and the songs remain the same: People are damaged, spirituality is a mystery, and we pay for our sins.

"Life Is a Problem," a childlike folk ballad on Sweet Heart Sweet Light that Pierce sings over lush strings, finds him talking to Jesus: "Please be my bullet and gun, shoot all the sinners down, every one," he implores. "Kill all my demons and that will be fine, but I will be reloading all of the time." Then, in the refrain, he adds, "And this life is too long, and my willpower's never too strong."

By contrast, the music Spiritualized makes is as strong as music gets today.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Big waves of Last Splash."

Mark Segal Kemp is a former music editor of Rolling Stone and author of the book Dixie Lullaby. He lives in Charlotte with his wife, Tarrah Segal-Kemp.

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