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Reluctant Heroine






Kim Deal is a long-distance runner, albeit one who has to be coaxed to run at all. Deal's voice first hit my ears back in 1988. Her song "Gigantic," on the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, was a pop-punk masterpiece with a deceptively simple chorus that wouldn't leave my brain.

But that was her only songwriting contribution to the album, and indeed to the entire Pixies oeuvre. After that one moment of early glory she shut up and stood back while the head Pixie, someone calling himself Black Francis, grabbed all the attention. In a way it's not hard to understand--Black Francis (who's now calling himself Frank Black) is a consummate attention grabber, the kind of character who's driven to prove himself the biggest voice in any room. But Deal seemed to crave a kind of anonymity; on the Pixies' first album she didn't even identify herself by name, referring to herself in the credits only as Mrs. John Murphy. (She's since divorced.)

In 1990, after several years as a backup Pixie, Deal gathered together some other neglected women of rock (including Tanya Donelly, then second fiddle in Throwing Muses and now first fiddle in Belly) and put out an album, Pod, as the Breeders. It was an almost aggressively meandering effort, with occasional flashes of brilliance, but it didn't come close to the promise of "Gigantic." None of the songs quite came together: the melodies were slightly off-kilter, the guitar riffs alternately too bland and too harsh. There was an aura of unfocused misery about the album, an unpleasant aftertaste that reeked of too much unprocessed anger.

But Deal was able to get her act together--and the Breeders' second album (with Deal at the helm of a different cast of characters) was her revenge. From the rollicking bass riff of "Cannonball" to the manic pop thrill of "Divine Hammer," 1993's Last Splash was an album that did "Gigantic" one better. True, Deal interspersed her moments of pop clarity with a few nearly unlistenable dirges, but if that was the price we had to pay for "Cannonball," then so be it.

Now, two years after Last Splash and one year after the end of a grueling world tour, Deal has returned with a strange, small album called Pacer (presumably named as a kind of tribute to the lateness of her blooming). The record is ostensibly the product of a band called the Amps--and a small blurry picture on the sleeve shows Deal standing with three others--but it's clear that the record is her own baby all the way. Even so, her name appears only in the fine print.

She began pulling the record together in the miserable winter months following the Breeders' tour, during a temporary retreat from the limelight in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio. With her sister (and fellow Breeder) Kelley in trouble with both heroin addiction and the law and the other two Breeders on break after a long tour, Deal began fooling around in her basement with a roomful of equipment and a four-track recorder--playing all the instruments herself and overdubbing the vocals. "I'm going to be called Tammy and the Amps," she told Spin writer Charles Aaron earlier this year, "because I'm Tammy and I'm just playing with a bunch of amps."

Now it's just the Amps, and the original demos, for better or worse, have become songs--though they still sound like demos, complete with tape hiss and muddied, distorted vocals. I still don't know quite what to make of the album; I played it more than half a dozen times in succession before I began distinguishing the individual songs. Yet riffs from several of the songs keep coming back to me at odd moments.

There's no question this is a work of brilliance, perhaps the best thing to hit the music world since, say, Elastica's debut--maybe since Last Splash itself. In some ways this album is tighter than Last Splash; Deal has dispensed with the meandering filler seemingly designed to frustrate all but the most devoted listeners. Almost all the songs on Pacer pack a punch--or could if they were rescued from the fuzz and distortion (and sonic mud) of Deal's little four-track.

The album presents a varied diet--from the wistful, country-tinged title track to the screeching, punky "Empty Glasses," which could be an outtake from Hole. But it is held together by a consistent sound, by Deal's lilting melodic signature--and ultimately by Deal's jagged vocals, alternately aggressive and unsure. (The lyrics, as usual for Deal, are obscure and almost impossible to make out; she's not giving much away.)

Like Last Splash (and like the Pixies at their best), Pacer is full of wonderful moments--the way the punky rave-up of "Full on Idle" gives way to a quiet interlude; the way the spiky guitars of "Tipp City" overwhelm the vocals; the muttered "you know" in the middle of "Dedicated." The precarious, beautifully minimalist chorus of "Bragging Party" is pure joy. And it's hard to convey the offhand genius of "She's a Girl," which is only enhanced by the gratuitous guitar noises Deal has slipped into the sidelines of the song.

The album has more than good moments. "I Am Decided" is an assured bit of songwriting, sliding into its chorus with a casual grace. And, with its wonderfully crashing guitar chords and a melody that insinuates itself deep into your subconscious, "Dedicated" is almost another "Cannonball"--though it's quieter and decidedly more quirky, with disconcerting stops and starts and a final chorus that seems to have wandered in from another (lesser) song.

But for each taste of transcendence there are moments of disconcerting awkwardness. The song "First Revival" features not only some of the prettiest vocals on the album--and I mean that in a good way--but a guitar solo so thoroughly bungled it makes you wince. "Hoverin," almost a throwaway song, starts with a burst of drumming that's so sloppy even nonmusicians will notice the mistakes. "Breaking the Split Screen Barrier" is all buildup and no delivery, a stillborn rock anthem.

What to make of this strange album--a pop masterpiece at war with itself? It's as if, after the artistic and commercial success of Last Splash, Deal found herself for the first time facing the prospect of true rock stardom--and turned away.

In interviews Deal has professed an impatient disdain for the purist stance of many alternative musicians, who when faced for the first time with mainstream success profess to be horrified by it all, sabotaging their work with artificial angst and poor production in order to maintain their "indie" credibility--it's the musical equivalent of ripping holes in your jeans. To Deal, though, this didn't represent purity as much as cowardice--a refusal to put oneself on the line--and a willingness to settle for a steady job in the comfortable ghetto of alternative life, supported by a small but loyal (and uncritical) legion of cult fans.

"Fucking turn up your vocals, please!" Deal complained in an interview with Village Voice music critic Eric Weisbard. "I hate it when people make things so difficult because they're being so indie. That was one of the things recording Last Splash. I had to constantly remind myself, turn up the fucking vocals. I tried to do that so I wouldn't sound like this wimp indie band. Really, I thought it was cowardly not to."

For Deal, one suspects, withdrawal is a constant temptation. Like the protagonist in "Cannonball," Deal is continually "spitting in a wishing well" and mucking herself up. This tendency shows up in the muddy sound of Pacer--and in some ways more clearly in the way Deal presents herself to the public. As most critics have noted, Deal has always refused the glamour queen role. Indeed, she's made her reputation as a rock 'n' roll "hag" almost a matter of pride. She grimaces for the photographers; she doesn't wash her hair--and in one notable and widely reported incident, she went as far as rubbing ham in her hair before a concert because her just-washed locks felt "too fluffy."

It's clear enough she doesn't want to fit into a prepackaged mold as a rock 'n' roll sex goddess. But that's not all there is to it; her refusal is a tad too aggressive--it reeks of false bravado. "Of course, I know how my photos look," Deal has said. "I know I come off lookin' like a fuckin' haggy housewife compared to all these other women in rock, and that's fine with me, man. So I don't wanna wash my hair, fuck you, this is how I look."

That's what Shakespeare (and Freud) would call protesting too much. Clearly, there is something about her endless reassertion of her unglamorous selfhood that smacks of self-sabotage. It's one thing to sneer at the role of the rock chick in the manner of, say, Chrissie Hynde--to ruthlessly intimidate male fans with a show of surliness and to keep all your shirts buttoned to the top. It's another to hide behind grotesque grimaces and unwashed hair. That's not self-assertion; that's a kind of retreat.

In many ways, what Deal is most afraid of is her own competence--and so she has set out to hide it and deny it. She was the creative force behind the Breeders, and ultimately it was she who was responsible for the album's moments of pop clarity. And there is no question that she could have done the same thing with the Amps, transforming a rough, if promising, collection of demos into the masterpiece it might have been. These songs don't need their rough edges to prove their integrity; with better production, she could probably become the biggest thing since Kurt Cobain.

It's worthwhile to compare her with her old comrade Black Francis--who has returned, not as the flailing genius of the Pixies, but as "Frank Black," a smooth but limited popster with a stripped-down style missing much of the astringent quirkiness that made his earlier band so riveting. He wants to be the biggest thing since Kurt Cobain--and partly because he wants it so badly he is bound to fail. There's no question he's got a talent for hooks; I've played Black's Teenager of the Year over and over so many times I'm surprised the tape still works. But there's more to music than hooks.

Deal hasn't given herself over to the alternapop blandness of her former Pixie supervisor; her work has as many rough edges as life itself. But the rough edges at times threaten to overwhelm her.

In Making It, a book that has been meanly criticized over the years, literary critic Norman Podhoretz grappled with his own feelings about the prospects of success--and decided, after serious consideration, that he'd like success better than failure. Few people are so willing to admit it. "[J]udging by the embarrassment that a frank discussion of one's feelings about one's own success, or the lack of it, invariably causes in polite society today, ambition...seems to be replacing erotic lust as the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul," he wrote. "And since the natural accompaniments of a dirty little secret are superstition, hypocrisy and cant, it is no cause for wonder that the theme of success rarely appears in our discourse unattended by at least one of these three dismal Furies inherited from Victorian sex."

Ironically, one of the things that those who brazenly grab at success have to give up is the luxury of believing (or, more often, half believing) in their own hypothetical omnipotence. So long as they believe and act as if their art, their music, their writing is "too radical" to be accepted by the mainstream, they can remain secure in the safe adulation of a small cult audience.

This self-justifying fear of success--this fear of getting on with the business of life itself, has been internalized in the "slacker" code of perpetual adolescence. And while the slacker as a cultural archetype is in part a creation of the media, the slacker ideology permeates much of so-called alternative culture, which invests artistic and personal stasis with a kind of glamour.

In her interview with Spin's Aaron last spring, Deal spoke out fervently against the glorification of drugs--as the sister of a heroin addict, she knows a little about how distinctly unglamorous the addict's life can be. "So what we should be doing, instead of glamorizing showing how fucking boring junkies are," she argued, her words backed with real anger. "They're like little old ladies who need their medication and can't be away from a doctor too long. But unlike little old ladies, after awhile, they can't get anybody to give them money, and they run out of money and they're not free and wild and experiencing life through drugs, they're delaying life."

Deal understands the lure of stasis all too well: after nearly a decade as a rock star, she still winces when she sees her name in lights.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Greer.

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