22.12.20

Weird Women Setting Off Fireworks in Winter: A Story of Listening to 'Pod' by the Breeders All the Time in 2020

(photo by Kevin Westenberg)

BY ELIZABETH BARKER

One of my favorite stories I've read this year is about how when Tanya Donelly decided to quit the Breeders, Kim Deal locked the two of them in the bathroom of a bar in Ohio to try to talk her out of it - and then by the time they came out the bar had closed for the night, they were locked in, they had to break themselves out and walk home on the highway. The only album Tanya made with the Breeders is Pod, which came out 30 years ago last May. Their original idea was to make it a dance record, because they loved dancing, but instead it turned out to be a rock album about bugs, schizophrenia, Sherlock Holmes, a sleepover. They recorded it in Edinburgh in the middle of winter and wore their pajamas all the time, like a never-ending pajama party, although Kim referred to it as "winter camp for a collection of losers." After the album came out they gave interviews at the cemetery in the Hollywood Hills and at a hotel in L.A. where they laid out by the pool, tanning, drinking straight bourbon in the middle of the day. They called themselves The Bangles from Hell, and in their cover story for Melody Maker the journalist calls them "mutant Shangri-Las." (Also in that cover story, Kim reveals that her favorite word is luscious, and that her parents had a rule that either she or Kelley had to always be wearing nail polish so they could tell the twins apart.) 

Apart from Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Pod is the album I've listened to most in quarantine. I never get sick of it, or even used to it: it always surprises me. Here are some things I love about it most:

i. I think part of the reason Pod sounds good in quarantine is the scale of it: it feels like being alone in a very dark room, but it also feels like an entire world. A lot of the time I wish it were more than an album; I wish it were a novel or a movie or a limited TV series on a prestige network, rated TV-MA. I would love eight hours of Pod-esque drama onscreen, something moody and racy and enchanted in a warped way, Girlfriends meets the Susan Seidelman-directed episodes of "Sex and the City" meets Faerie Tale Theatre. The plot could tie in little dramatizations of the songs on Pod, like the sleepover in "Iris," or how in "Glorious" they drink mushroom tea and play Scrabble and take a nap, or how "Fortunately Gone" is about a woman in Heaven waiting for her beloved to die so they can get back together again. And whenever I hear "Oh!" I get this scene in my head, a woman in a lavender leotard doing ballet in her bathroom, using the towel rack for a barre and occasionally taking a sip of a seafoam-colored health shake, slightly hungover on a Saturday afternoon but determined to bring some grace and refinement and dreamy asceticism to her day.

But really I don't care much about plot; all that matters is that the vibe is true to the psychic atmosphere of Pod, which is an album with the lyrics And in a kitchen in Kentucky, she thinks she's Peter Pan and Hay for a bed, with her on my head and When Iris sleeps over, what a book she'll write. I want a glacially-paced arthouse soap opera, populated by weird women like the Breeders circa Pod: women who never make a big show of being weird, who seem generally indifferent to the ways in which their weirdness imprints on those around them. Most of the time in movies, a woman's weirdness is something for the male protagonist to marvel at and be seduced by and to use as a means of exorcising his own dullness, rekindling his joie de vivre. I want a movie where it's just women being weird for each other, and it lights them up and fortifies them and gives them the courage to live in the full expression of their oddball tendencies. Like Maron told Lorde "Don't medicate your joy," I think it's kind of crucial not to hide the thing in you that makes you see the world different from everybody else. But in real life it can be so hard not to hide. It's good to have people around who won't let you, who will hold you accountable for having avoided becoming someone who's never not down for a bottomless-mimosa brunch, who won't allow you to squander or bury your very singular strangeness.

There's a part in Durga Chew-Bose's book Too Much and Not the Mood where she writes about "nook people," which is a term she and a friend invented in order to self-categorize. It goes on for pages and I want to type all of it here but this might be my favorite sentence:

Nook people fall asleep in their palms; are pacified by tucking their hands in the warm seam of two thighs; are rarely sure how they got good at anything; confront despair with a strong drink or by giving up for months, only writing first sentences or returning to a corrupted love; or converting their bed into a life raft, or wearing a thick cat-eye simply to walk to the store; or making innocent decisions like buying a shower radio to cure a bad day, or finding a friend who is folding her laundry and requesting that you sit on her floor while she pairs socks, or suggesting that you donate your bunch of brown bananas so that she might bake the bread.

There's some overlap between nook people and the type of women who inhabit the world that Pod puts in my head - nook people collect sea glass, drink wine from mugs, "confuse emotional truth with other varieties of truth" - but I'm mainly struck by the specificity, the notion of a whole flock of people embodying the same idiosyncrasies. The women in my Pod movie are kindred like that: they all live in grubby apartments that are sparsely furnished but lavishly cluttered, filled up with things like seashells and tarot decks and wicker-bottomed chianti bottles stuck with candlesticks, tequila bottles full of sand from faraway beaches, ashtrays stolen from Denny's and from a tiki bar in Vegas. There's a bong made out of a water gun shaped like a tropical fish, a tropical fish tank with no water but hunks of neon-pink coral and a figurine of a hot busty mermaid. On the walls there's that Jamaica Tourist Board poster from 1972, too many mirrors and mall-hippie tapestries, a picture of David Bowie ripped carelessly from a magazine and stuck to the plaster with a sticker from an apple. They're willfully messy women; every moment has the showy yet earnest chaos of Ally Sheedy dumping her bag onto the couch in the third act of The Breakfast Club, talking about how you never know when you may have to jam.

Pod women probably also dance like Allison in The Breakfast Club, and do their eye makeup the same, and there's never any Molly Ringwald to come along and priss it up. But instead of the long skirt and leggings and baggy sweater, their fashion sense communicates misfit in a more lighthearted and celebratory way - something like tearing the sleeves off an old Joe Beach or Joe Tennis shirt and wearing it over a bright crinkly peasant skirt, or going out in a new-wave-y white-vinyl raincoat when it's not even raining, or pairing dangly art-teacher earrings with a slouchy brown bomber jacket like Kim does in the "Safari" video. On occasion they embrace all-out frumpiness, a la Madonna at a Bryan Ferry concert in 1988. An ideal hair situation would be a high and fountainous pony, or the nest-like hairstyle that Christine Smallwood associates with women who "do not control their bodies from above like a ghost in a machine." I also mean the kind of woman who might accessorize by tucking a cocktail umbrella behind her ear, who ties a knee sock around her head in lieu of a sleep mask, whose idea of perfume is roll-on sandalwood oil or a Bath & Body Works deep cut like Velvet Sugar body spray. The kind of woman who's hoping for elegance but still wearing cutoffs - and, in cold weather, cutoffs with black tights. Pod is a very cutoffs-and-black-tights record to me, maybe above all else.


ii. If I were making a Pod movie I'd put the two lead women in scenarios like: slipping off to the bathroom together at a party or a bar, keeping up the conversation while one woman's peeing and her friend's fixing her lipstick in the mirror, and then shyly switching off; 
setting off firecrackers in an empty park covered in filthy snow, at some bullshit time of year like the third week of January; getting ready to go out on a Friday night and sharing a mirror and an eyeshadow palette and a bottle of beer, one woman attempting to tell the other an elaborate story over the roar of a blow dryer. (I love the intensity of concentration it takes for women to understand each other in that blow-drying moment, the exorbitantly serious "I got you" face the listener puts on for her friend: to me that is the look of love.) There'd be an almost pathological togetherness to their friendship, like how in college or high school there were those groups of girls who had a physical intimacy that verged on sexual but mostly telegraphed a sort of charmed clannishness, girls who were always lying around with their heads in each other's laps, who held hands or stroked each other's hair or kissed hello on the lips. Their closeness becomes a kind of glamour because it's so impenetrable. 

I think a big reason why I'm infatuated with Pod in 2020 is the making of it seems so romantic: when you go months and months without really ever seeing your friends, it's nice to think about Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly and Josephine Wiggs recording an album in their pajamas and then doing interviews where they brush their hair in the mirror together. In that book about the Pixies there's this sweet part where Tanya's talking about Kim and says: "I never had girlfriends like her in high school. She was my first 'I'm gonna braid your hair!' kind of friend. 'Let's paint our nails!' I'd never had that before." I love that they had a friendship that started with painting their nails and braiding each other's hair and then grew into making a record whose only logical cover art is a blurry faceless someone dancing in a belt made of eels. That's what can happen when you share the same fascinations and curiosities, and you're actually committed to seeing that through and making something wild out of it. You get so deep into your own groove together, everything feels possible.

iii. I like this quote from Steve Albini, who engineered Pod:

"There was a simultaneous charm to Kim's presentation to her music that's both childlike and giddy and also completely mature and kind of dirty. And I instantly liked that it had the sort of playful nature of children's music and it had this sort of girlish fascination with things that were pretty but it was also kind of horny."

I'm happy he used the word horny. People use "horny" all the time these days and it basically means nothing anymore, so now we need another word. Ideally I'd like "lusty" to mean what "lustful" means, but really it means "healthy and strong, full of vigor." The lusty I'm looking for has what horny used to have, which is a little bit of sickness to it. Horny is for people who think it's sweet when Mick Jagger sings "You can come all over me," or who feel seen when Peggy Olson has to go eat a ham sandwich and a big-ass cherry danish after Pete tells her his hunting fantasy. The last correct expression of horniness in mass culture was the rampant use of the peach emoji in Instagram content related to Timothée Chalamet. 

It's kinda hard to point to specific examples of horniness in the lyrics to Pod"Only in 3s" is about a threesome, and in that Melody Maker article Kim says that "Opened" is soft porn, and the first line to "When I Was a Painter" is "inside legs of corduroy I've been" - which feels like being a teenager and wearing corduroy pants during some slutty makeout sesh in the middle of the afternoon. But for the most part it's an ambient horniness, a low-key aura of wanting and lusting and dreaming of possibly forbidden scenarios, with none of the frustration usually associated with being horny. It's a hot-and-unbothered sort of desire, languid and hazy but more attuned to the tiny pleasures of the world, maybe akin to being turned-on in the grander/psychedelic sense. It's a lovely thing to be turned on, high on your hotness for someone or something, happily suspended in a dreamy state of wanting. I want way more songs made from that moment.

(Also also also, speaking of sex things, in 1992 Kurt Cobain wrote a list of the 10 albums that changed his life and Pod is #10 - he calls it "an epic that will never let you forget your ex-girlfriend." At one point he says: "'Doe,' the song about where a girl gives a boy head and he pats her on the head like a doe, is very funny. They're strong women, but it's not that obvious. They're not militant about it at all. You can sense they love men at the same time." The last couple sentences are a little early-'90s-basic but I don't care: I'll let Kurt get away with anything. According to Kim, "Doe" is about two teenagers with schizophrenia who are in love and on Thorazine and want to burn their town down, but I'm into Kurt's blowjob interpretation. I like the idea of a 23-year-old kid hearing that song and thinking "Hmm, blowjobs," and then bowing down to the art of it. It's cute cuz it's Kurt, who collects dolls and drinks Strawberry Quik and paints his fingernails antagonistic colors, wears multiple mood rings at the same time. I loved when he and Kim wore Christmas tree tinsel like fancy stoles on the cover of Melody Maker in December '93.)

iv. There's a part in Kristin Hersh's memoir Rat Girl where she describes the diet of each member of Throwing Muses in the mid-'80s, and says how Tanya Donelly eats "party food for very small parties: miniature boxes of petit fours, little jars of Vienna sausages, tiny pieces of toast." I wish every musician I've ever loved had kept a food diary for the duration of whichever era of their existence I'm most fascinated by, but I'd especially love to read a food diary kept by the Breeders during the making of Pod. Because that wish will likely never come true I'm just going to dream up a list of foods that have a very Pod-like vibe to them, including:

-McDonald's cherry pies, strawberry sundaes, hotcakes, small fry

-blackberry Hostess Fruit Pies

-a pail of Neapolitan ice cream

-a sloe gin fizz served in one of those curvy Coca-Cola glasses

-an oatmeal cookie dipped in a paper cup of black coffee

-Kraft macaroni & cheese eaten straight from the pot like Cliff Booth

-orange licorice (the soft/sweet kind from Australia)

-a platter of potato chips drizzled with honey like at the Golden Tiki in Las Vegas

-the pastel-pink chocolate in the Russell Stover chocolate sampler

-a carafe of white wine & a stainless steel teapot of jasmine oolong tea, consumed simultaneously at an extremely basic Thai restaurant

-pineapple fried rice & moo-shi chicken & a flaming pupu platter & a round of mai tais at an underwater Chinese restaurant that's got lazy susans at every table and little silver pots of hot mustard + duck sauce, and looks something like Al Mahara in Dubai - only way less classy and with red velvet throne-like chairs, and also you can smoke cigarettes & the ashtrays are seashells

v. In an earlier version of this post I wrote about every song on Pod individually, and "Metal Man" was about not understanding Kim Deal's brain. With any musician you're obsessed with it's fun to try to figure out where the songs came from - like how you can look at David Bowie and go "Okay - cabaret, Little Richard, sci-fi, kabuki, the Beatles," and so on, and start to get at least a little bit of a sense of how the puzzle pieces come together. But I have no concept of what converged in Kim Deal's head to make her write anything on Pod or a song like "Cannonball," which sounds like a spaceship blasting off and pennies dropping into an ashtray and a grand rollerskating party, and then the chorus lyric is want you, koo-koo, cannonball. Kim was a high-school cheerleader and a lab technician and Pod is full of songs that are strange compact wonderlands that are sometimes quite ghastly ("Hellbound" is about a fetus that survives an abortion, for example). It's a different kind of dreamy compared to lots of other artists who make fantastical music - her sensibility seems uninformed by Kate Bush or fairy tales or 19th century gothic romance, there's nothing ethereal to her presentation. A lot of the music I love comes from the ether, or at least a presumed interaction with it, but Pod feels completely tethered to the physical world, to the actual earth and dirt and rock, like the album itself is wearing big clunky boots.

In that Melody Maker cover story on the Breeders, Kim talks about how "Oh!" is written from the POV of a bug being squashed and makes the point that "If you get stepped on, you bust and glow, not just live a good life." I love the poetry of "bust and glow" and I love the poetry of the line "Your soft belly bossing lows" and the thing that Kim does to her voice the second time she sings it, how it feels like breaking in two. "Oh!" starts off sounding like being quietly in love with the world, carefree and heavy-hearted at the same time, and then at the end it sounds like dying. I love Kim for revealing what it's about: songwriters are always saying how they don't like to talk about the meaning behind their lyrics because it might take away from the listener's interpretation, but knowing that "Oh!" is the story of a squashed bug seems so vital. It gives the narrative a sweetness and innocence that get tangled up with everything else inside the song (the nicely dazed feeling you get from the vocal and rhythm, like falling in love; the lazy ballet of the violin; an overall sensation of gently tumbling in summertime), and it feels so violent once that gets taken away. It makes it devastating, and pleasurable devastation is one of the most wonderful possible outcomes of any kind of art.

vi. In quarantine I've gotten really into gelatin art, especially Sharona Franklin, who makes jello sculptures filled with flowers, pills, hardware, syringes, toys, fruit, etc. Here's some of her work:





Some albums are snow globes or dioramas or maps or ornately frosted cakes, but to me Pod is a glorious jello sculpture. It's a trapped world full of charmed and ugly things, it's impossible and creepy and gorgeous in a garish way. You can't live inside it but you can look in and tap at the surface, and then watch it shimmy and wobble. Jello sculptures eventually decompose but Pod stays intact; Kim Deal's brain is an eternal mystery. There's nothing to do but be delighted these songs exist, then keep letting them mystify you forever.

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