1993 was an odd and optimistic year for popular music, characterized by some nebulous notion of “alternative music” creeping into the public consciousness and indie bands signing to major labels by the boatload, hoping to be the next Nirvana. In 1993, Last Splash by The Breeders was released; front woman and Pixies member Kim Deal and British bassist Josephine Wiggs weren’t new to the game, but the band’s other half was. Kim’s twin sister Kelley Deal was a guitar novice, and drummer Jim MacPherson, as explained in the liner notes of LSXX, didn’t even know what monitor speakers were when playing his second Breeders show, opening for Nirvana. (Dave Grohl was amused.) This 3-CD deluxe package commemorating the 20th anniversary of Last Splash is a reminder of that youthful spirit of the left-of-center musical zeitgeist, not yet world-weary and well before the alt-rock bubble burst.
Although this writer considers the 1990 debut Pod to be the superior album, spotlighting Last Splash makes sense, since it was the breakthrough that went platinum, and it has held up just fine after twenty years, with both gloriously big, dumb riffs and small details like those opening bass notes of “Cannonball” (which were actually misplayed notes, reportedly) still hitting those pleasure centers. The Breeders were all about having a killer rhythm section, with the guitars—with the perfect distorted timbres—adding thickness while happily ripping off MC5 or whomever for chugging bliss. Disc one features the original album, while disc two compiles EPs (including the flawless Safari EP), single tracks, demos and a live version of “Iris,” and some of the highlights are enthusiastic covers like the throbbing rendition of Aerosmith’s “Lord of the Thighs” and the blink-and-miss-it blast of “Shocker in Gloomtown” by Guided By Voices. Disc three features a solid, yet not particularly surprising live show recorded in Stockholm in 1994 and a 4-song BBC session. Casual fans might not need all this stuff, but it’s nice to have it together in a lovingly crafted, beautiful package. The most enlightening thing about the set is actually the booklet, with often hilarious remembrances from band members and collaborators, capturing the hopeful and irrepressible group at its energy peak.
Pianist and improviser Thollem McDonas is in a constant state of flux, being an ever-itinerant performer who never sits still for very long. As an example, since the beginning of 2012, he has been featured on no fewer than nine different albums, playing with notables such as Mike Watt, free-jazz bassist William Parker, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, Jad Fair of Half Japanese and John Dieterich of Deerhoof, constantly stretching the limits of his own playing while exploring the sometimes volatile and rewarding chemistry of varied collaborations. One of McDonas’s many ventures is the Estamos Project, which began in 2009 with the ten-member Estamos Ensemble; in line with his anti-homebody lifestyle, it was formed as a way to encourage musical partnerships across the U.S./Mexican border and stimulate dialogue between improvisers. The latest incarnation of this project is the Estamos Trio featured on the album People’s Historia, dashing any preconceived notions of what an American-Mexican musical endeavor should sound like.
McDonas teams up with vocalist and electronic musician Carmina Escobar and percussionist Milo Tamez, making a mysterious first impression on the opening track “Aba,” with scampering, insistent brushed drums, John Cage-style prepared piano tinkering and Escobar’s intriguing, echoing singing and speaking. It’s followed by “Bian,” with not-quite-jazz wanderings and intersecting, dexterous piano melodies among field recordings of a rainstorm, with the percussion equivalent of a watercolor painting, peppered with gentle shakes of the brush in the form of pearlescent cymbal sprays. Pastoral moments are balanced with less comfortable and more provocative passages on the album in unexpected ways, such as Escobar’s tender yet almost confrontational close-talking/singing on “Abadakabo” with its starkness. “Abatian” is Tamez’s opportunity to launch his percussion fireworks, with a colorful fountain of bells, tuned drums, chimes, wood blocks, vibrating cymbals, scrapes and outbursts. It’s an album of fascinating paradoxes, at times being simultaneously placid and urgent, and the group lays down dramatic drops with the synchronicity of a keenly sensing trio with a healthy give-and-take parity.