The smash box-office returns of the Pixies reunion did more than help build an addition to Frank Black's house in Portland. It apparently roused the sleeping ambition of Pixies bassist and Breeders mastermind Kim Deal. It's been six years since Title TK, the wan Breeders album that couldn't match the goofy neon blast of Last Splash, the one that had the ginormous hit "Cannonball." For all their cult status and records for the ages, the Pixies were left begging for chart success. Deal's second band (which includes her twin sister Kelley) had enough off-handed charm (not to mention MTV appeal) to reach out to more ears.
For Mountain Battles, Deal brings on noted producer Steve Albini to help shepherd a batch of odd and short Breeders songs. The out-of-left-field pop sense Deal displayed in Last Splash and in fits and starts in Title TK is here, though it is occasionally muted. The album begins with an intriguing false start, "Overglazed," a rocker that rev ups (and contains precisely one lyric, the proclamation "I can feel it!") and makes you think that more faster-and-louder is coming. It's not.
"Bang On" percolates nicely even as it demonstrates the frustrating quality of a lot of Breeders songs: It feels unfinished and unresolved. "Night of Joy" is softer but better, Deal's plaintive voice sailing out over a murmur of drums and light guitar. The only positive thing to say about "German Studies" is that it's sung in German.
But then "Istanbul" arrives, and it's so hypnotic — an Eastern-sounding shuffle with a bass line that wraps around you like a snake — that you have trouble advancing through the rest of the record. "It's the Love" succeeds in grabbing your attention through a great, fast, tight guitar hook.
The moments that compel outnumber the moments where you feel Deal and her sister didn't want to try too hard. That there won't be another "Cannonball" on Mountain Battles is the record industry's fault. The Deal sisters come back to the game and do more than just show up. — Werner Trieschmann