Pere Ubu – St. Arkansas

St. Arkansas

Pere UbuSt. Arkansas spinART SPART 108 (2002)

Approaching its third decade as a band, Pere Ubu sounded surprising close to its late 1970s roots on St. Arkansas.  If “avant garage” has long been the term of choice to describe their style of rock and roll, it remains the right way to describe this album.  As a band, they thrive on the fringe of acceptability.

St. Arkansas is a road album. David Thomas reportedly wrote the words from Conway, Arkansas to Tupelo, Mississippi, from I-40 to U.S. 49 to State 6.  Movement is implied in the songs, compiled from isolated moments and drawn into a surreal reflection of americana, as if passed by in a moving car, in a blur.

“The Fevered Dream of Hernando DeSoto” opens the disc very much in the band’s style of old.  But this isn’t purely a retreat into the past.  St. Arkansas has gems to offer both newcomers and Pere Ubu’s cult following.  At times the album grooves (“333” and the Brian Wilson-meets-Ray Davies sounding “Phone Home Jonah”), while other times it perplexes at a halting pace (“Michele”).

Pere Ubu’s lineup of the last five years can coax a balance out of extremes. The liner notes suggest: “Most people know that by moving between the two speakers of your hi fi system a point can be located at which the sound seems to lock into place. Ordinarily this is the point that forms an equilateral triangle with the two sound sources.  With Pere Ubu, however, this point has been located directly in front of the right hand source.  There are reasons for this.”  If this all seems very deliberate, know that the production on this album is a little raw and hollow.  It’s not terrible, but it seems somewhat underbaked overall.

This is a good one, and it is worth saying again that it is probably the closest to the band’s 1970s sound as anything since that time — if that’s your thing.  Yet it is a notch below the underrated return to form album Ray Gun Suitcase, which has the advantage in freshness and inventive techniques, even if it is less song-driven.

Pere Ubu – Ray Gun Suitcase

Ray Gun Suitcase

Pere UbuRay Gun Suitcase Cooking Vinyl COOK CD 089 (1995)

Pere Ubu were one of the stranger rock bands to emerge from the punk era.  But by the late 1980s their sound shifted to a more pop-focused arena.  1995’s Ray Gun Suitcase was a sort of return to a rock sound.  The band’s lineup had changed a lot since the 1970s, so this is closer to the “alternative rock” milieu than punk, but there are hints of the band of old — such as electronic effects by Robert Wheeler that recall Allen Ravenstine‘s experiments of the past.  What is most new here are the song structures, many of which play like mini-suites with numerous shifts in tone.  Also, there is an emphasis on theatrics, in the formal sense.  Singer David Thomas adopts affected singing techniques that seem drawn from avant-garde theater (“Vacuum in My Head”).  So guitarist Jim Jones plays some driving, anthemic riffs, but those come and go in any given song.  The bass (Michele Temple, plus Paul Hamann) is prominent, and the overall sound is crisp but full, with a lot of separation that lends an almost hollow effect.  There are definite rhythms and melodies and chord progressions, but also atonal interjections and other elements at odds with convention.  Overall, the subject matter of the songs seems to look back a bit, with an interest in “Americana,” but for the purpose of understanding what cultural history means for the future — this is not nostalgic navel-gazing by any means.  This would establish a foundation for much of what the band pursued for the next decade.

Pere Ubu – Dub Housing

Dub Housing

Pere UbuDub Housing Chrysalis CHR 1207 (1978)

Pere Ubu was a remarkable band from an unlikely place. Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, they created some of the most inventive music to come from the punk movement. While most groups remotely comparable at the time would be expected to come from England or New York, Pere Ubu almost single-handedly kept cutting-edge rock and roll alive in the Midwest (along with Debris’, and others). They emerged,along with patent punk stereotypes Dead Boys, from the demise of the queen mother of all cult bands, Rocket From the Tombs.

Cooperative performance and arrangements distinguished Pere Ubu from their ancestral roots. Tom Herman‘s amazing guitar work blends seamlessly with the rest of the group. Sometimes shaded by psychedelia, the atonal barrage works outside typical rock & roll form without losing the spirit. Pounding electronics massage thick beats. If rock is truly dance music, Pere Ubu can still satisfy. They go so much further though. Everything is a statement.

Singer David Thomas towers like Sleepy LaBeef and wails like Captain Beefheart.  Despite a limited vocal range, he did make use of every bit he had. Lyrics — the usual downfall of Midwestern bands — are legitimately interesting.  Something simple like drunken sailors missing their boat on “Caligari’s Mirror” is insightfully recast as a tale of inescapable waiting and an unbreakable connection to worldly moral disease (giving the Dr. Caligari folk tale echoes of Samuel Beckett). Without abandoning Midwest flavor, Pere Ubu works magic with their experience. Adopting a foreign persona is just unnecessary.

Dub Housing is often considered their masterpiece. Generally dark, a fairly constant wackiness avoids total bleakness. Old-fashioned rock and R&B crops up. It is more abstract than their debut album. Goofier. Weirder. Their take on “Drinking Wine Spodyody” is strikingly angular and dissolute. Allen Ravenstine‘s musique concrète manipulations are at their peak power. “I Will Wait” and “Blow Daddy-O” use the space of kraut rock in an American style. “Ubu Dance Party” is lively. It stays true to the spirit of old soul dance singles yet inverts the typical dance rhythm.

Pere Ubu played rock and roll in all its glory. They knew the pressure points and inner structure, well enough to bend the American rock demon to their will.  Unlike punk bands they destroy nothing. They leave rock & roll intact, reformed. Despite recording for a major label, Pere Ubu was largely a cult phenomenon. Their impact was as great as rock and roll ever produced.

Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance

The Modern Dance

Pere UbuThe Modern Dance Blank Records 001 (1978)

Pere Ubu made music in bold, sweeping motions. Their full-length debut The Modern Dance is a freewheeling album. It puts Allen Ravenstine‘s tape manipulation precariously in front of the rather isolated guitars. This album is much easier to decipher than its follow-up Dub Housing. The Modern Dance is quite open about its motivations. It looks for something new. The dang thing holds up because it found something new. But also because it makes a sincere effort to preserve the group’s own identity.

The Modern Dance still has a lot in common with the group that spawned them, Rocket from the Tombs. The Rocket song “Life Stinks” by Peter Laughner keeps the old energy alive — for the most part. Refined as it is, “Life Stinks” is still one of those songs that can rile even the most hardened listener.

I respect any band that refuses to fabricate straight answers. Sometimes there are none.   Sometimes there are only mangled lies showing the appearance of truth. Take “Humor Me” for example. It takes aim at the biggest joke in human history: western “civilization”. And with no apologies! While these continuous attacks on the social bell curve kept Pere Ubu an underground act, they also elevated the group to a level worthy of their namesake (the name Pere Ubu was drawn from Alfred Jarry‘s play Ubu Roi).

There are many levels of understanding the world. Some people just “get it” in a way others don’t. That’s what “The Modern Dance” is all about. Many things happen on levels that some march right past. Pere Ubu wasn’t just some band that heads for easy results-oriented nonsense. They came from Cleveland. So of course despair, isolation and suffering are the most familiar themes. More surprising though is how fatalistic The Modern Dance is. References to concrete destiny are everywhere.

The album’s best songs are full of many intricate layers. “Chinese Radiation” bleeds with sentimental washes from an acoustic guitar, running over the electronic background. A carefully deployed piano resonates with slowly pounded chords.

“Non-Alignment Pact” is genius as an album opener. It starts with a looping, screeching blast like a siren. Only after the noise has its time out front do the guitars and the rest of the band join in. “Non-Alignment Pact” is a great twisted take on a love song. Actually, I’m not sure it’s supposed to be a love song, but I hear it as one. Other love songs speak in the positive. This one is about not making other allegiances. What matters is what is excluded. A punk love song would almost have to be that way.

Pere Ubu’s next two albums (Dub Housing and New Picnic Time) improved on some of the stranger experiments of this debut. But The Modern Dance has its own kind of tightly channeled manic energy, and, frankly, somewhat more consistently catchy songs as such. Experiencing it is consistently refreshing.