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The Breeders reunited in 2013 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their second and best-known album, Last Splash, and soon decided to record music for a new album, their fifth. All Nerve took a few more years to complete, but the same lineup that appeared on Last Splash has produced a record that embodies the qualities that made them unique. The strangely likeable, almost hummable melodies and hooks are slight reminders of Kim Deal’s other band, the Pixies, but the Breeders use dissonance and buzz-saw guitars in ways that set them apart from everyone else.
Kim sings the first lines of “Nervous Mary” over a basic guitar riff before feedback brings in the rest of the band. Kelley, the group’s lead guitarist and harmony vocalist, joins Kim to fill out the vocals and fatten up the guitar sound. Jim MacPherson’s hard-hitting drums give the music a firm, loud grounding, and bassist Josephine Wiggs adds to the wall of low-end guitars that come together even as notes clash in spots. Kelley throws in a brief guitar line near the end that gives the song a mid-1960s garage-band vibe.
A massive, low-toned fuzz guitar propels “Wait in the Car,” Wiggs again providing a snapping, fluid bass line that adds to the song’s slightly menacing tone. Lyrically, this track and “Nervous Mary” are more about impressions than narrative; when Kim sings “Wait in the Car! I got business,” she could be addressing a child or a lover; either way, she leaves the impression that she’s up to something bad.
The tenderness of the title track gives some respite, even with the crashing guitars and splashing cymbals. Kelley’s guitar lines, here and throughout the disc, give the songs their shape and harmonic depth. Wiggs sings and plays guitar on a tune she co-wrote with Kim, “MetaGoth,” and Kim gives the song a terrific, outsize bass line, but it’s Kelley’s fuzz-tone guitar lines, drenched in delay, that give the song life.
Kim plays all the guitars and bass in a terrific cover of “Archangel’s Thunderbird,” a 1970 song by the German band Amon Düül II. The song’s urgent, atonal glory fits neatly with the rest of the album, and demonstrates Kim’s own guitar chops. “Dawn: Making an Effort” expands into a swirling haze that surrounds Kim’s almost pleading voice as she sings of the ending of a long night and the hesitation and fear of the coming day.
“Blues at the Acropolis” has little to do with the blues, but its imagery (“Drunks take a piss where heroes once bled out”) says more about the collapse of the West than any doctoral thesis or opinion piece. MacPherson’s epic drums contribute to this track’s epic proportions, but I finished All Nerve with the feeling that this is a band effort. Kelley’s guitar often pulled me into the songs, but even after several plays, great moments kept rising to the surface -- a bass line played against the guitars, MacPherson’s aggressive but fluid drumming, Kim’s vocal phrasing.
Even with the overdriven guitars and dense sonic detail, All Nerve sounds good -- especially the voices, which are focused and out in front. It’s easy to pull out each of the guitars, and MacPherson’s kick drum punches out to propel the music. Wiggs’s bass is clear, her attacks clearly audible. All Nerve is a very solid return from a great American rock’n’roll band.
. . . Joseph Taylor