“I’ll buy that cup; I recognise that cup.”
I haven’t been back to this thread of my blog writing for some time, the last time being last September when I was moved to comment in a rather nostalgic and obvious (although sincere and heartfelt) manner about Bruce turning 70. (I still can’t believe Bruce is 70.)
It was always intended to be a little side-project, generally inspired by acquaintances suggesting artists to whom I had paid insufficient attention in the past. It has taken in, for example, Wire, Throwing Muses and PiL. It even has even seen me – under challenge – evaluate the work of Ariana Grande (and I still think ‘Imagine‘ is a great tune).
But I’m self-nominating this time…
I should say in advance that this piece is purely a gut reaction to two albums. A few people have been kind enough to comment on the level of meticulous research involved in my Fall blog, You Must Get Them All; this has also, I hope, been a key feature of my current project They All Exist (which will of course eventually feature Pere Ubu). This is not what this piece is about, however.
As a teenage NME reader in the 80s, I was vaguely aware of Pere Ubu without having much notion of what they actually sounded like. My first actual exposure to a David Thomas song came via Julian Cope. Around the age of 15-16, I came across and became slightly obsessed by Cope’s first two solo albums, World Shut Your Mouth and Fried, which featured a remarkable array of deranged psych-folk-pop tunes such as ‘Kolly Kibber’s Birthday‘, ‘Metranil Vavin‘ and ‘Reynard The Fox‘. I rushed out to buy 1987’s Saint Julian, which I enjoyed, even if its mainstream rock sound was a slight disappointment in comparison to the sheer, frazzled weirdness of his first two albums. I also bought the 12″ of ‘World Shut Your Mouth‘ (a song that, perversely, had not featured on the album of the same name). One of the b-sides was a cover of Pere Ubu’s ‘Non-Alignment Pact’.
It was one of my favourite moments of all the Saint Julian material, a focused and aggressive piece of tuneful pop-punk that felt like Teardrop Explodes wrestling with The Stooges. Realising eventually (I never was very observant) that it was a cover, I eventually looked into the original.
Much more raw and ragged than Cope’s version, at the time I thought it was interesting, but found Thomas’ quavering vocal a bit difficult to get on with. (I know, I know; I was young…)
Thereafter, Pere Ubu became one of those ‘I think they’re interesting and I must get around to listening more’ kind of bands for me. And, for my sins, that’s where they resided for far too long.
Fast forward to 2018. Over on the Fall Online Forum, we regularly indulge in shared ‘blind’ reviews of anonymous mixes called ‘Mix It Up’. One I received from ‘Mr Marshall’ included a tune that I described as a ‘menacing, understated cacophony’. It turned out to be this:
I was still a bit slow on the uptake (although, to be fair, I was at the time immersed in the Fall in Fives blog and hadn’t even started on You Must Get Them All). I did, on a few occasions, stick Pere Ubu’s back catalogue on shuffle (via Spotify) and had started to cotton on to how good it was. It’s only recently, however, that I have honed in on Pennsylvania and St Arkansas and begun to appreciate how incredible they are.
[As I alluded to above, I haven’t yet got my head around the context / history (which I will need to once I get to Pere Ubu on They All Exist. So this is based purely around the songs themselves.]
Relentless, shredded guitar over loping, Bonham-esque drums; the remorseless march is occasionally interrupted by ugly keyboard stabs. Thomas sits in a diner out on Route 322 (‘I spent my life there one afternoon’) and reflects on the disintegration of society: ‘We are abandoned / Lies own the word / All the pictures and all the museums in the world are just a sham… Culture’s a weapon that’s used against us / Culture’s a swamp and a superstition; ignorance and abuse.’ Apocalyptic, remorseless and bleak; a vanishing world captured in the time it takes to finish your coffee.
Sparse, brittle blues undercut by delicate, oscillating noise. ‘Between here and somewhere far, there’s a person you know, floating face down at the bottom of a jar.’ Thomas somehow expresses resigned, keening desperation through an avuncular, slightly fractured croon.
Gently chugging blues-rock accented with acoustic and electric slide guitar and subtle sci-fi. Has a Beefheart-esque ‘about to fall apart’ tone. Bleakly romantic: ‘My, how my world slows to a stop each night without you / One day, will you unfreeze my life.’
Urgent guitar riff that flirts with full-blown psych workout; eventually it gives in to abstraction before dragging itself back into focus. ‘Somewhere out there’ people are laughing and the beer is flowing. But this is observed from a distance; from here, the viewpoint is bleak.
The view isn’t so clear from here, as Thomas is enigmatic about this journey’s destination: ‘You don’t know where we’re going / that’s where we’re going.’ All we know is that we have to trust him; that we have to follow him is all we need to know. The haunting tone provided by the gently nagging guitar figure, subtly distorted lead, sparse percussion (nothing but a hand clap and a tambourine) and eerie synths is sufficiently hypnotic to persuade you to do so.
The spookiness continues. The rickety tin-can percussion (which has a touch of Swordfishtrombones about it) is dislocated from the rest of the music, which is more a soundscape than an actual song. Fragments of guitar drift by at their own pace, punctuated by occasional forays into jerky Beefheart territory. Concerns an old light bulb that’s been in the family for 75 years, apparently.
A more traditionally structured, riff-driven song, although as it gains momentum the twitchy little guitar part in one channel feels like it’s trying to drag it off into a ska direction. Thomas’ voice is somehow simultaneously hesitant and frenetic, gibbering about Muddy Waters sacking a ‘recalcitrant guitar player’.
A minute of gently dark ambience…
Clattering drums, swirling synth and shredded guitar frame this desperate road trip: ‘We’ve trailed our dreams behind us for days, like paper shredded by the force of our passing’. There’s even a chorus of sorts, but it hardly distracts from the relentless, oppressive tone. As the momentum builds, layers of understated guitar distortion propel you even more rapidly along the empty highway; you can almost sense the glare of the sun and the heat of the wind ‘as yet another ghost town casino forms through the shimmering heat’.
A brief but sinister tale of crime, sin and broken promises set to a dark, woozy jazz-club swing. ‘Man, what man are you?’
A crisp, snare-rim beat is underpinned by deep, throaty bass; twin guitars circle each other warily; wisps of synth noise drift in and out. The music is restrained, even gentle, but there’s an air of simmering tension to this tale of a ‘hard-edged town’ populated by ‘angry men’ where you ‘must swear an oath to leave’. It bristles with desolation and alienation: ‘something in the air tastes of strange enough.’
As the bleak road trip continues, Thomas stops off at another mysterious town. ‘Dust hangs in the air like it is perfume’; he ponders whether someone there knows him and he can’t shake off the feeling that he’d been expected all along. An ominous, gently throbbing blues fuels the disorientation. Although the ‘frozen quality of the hours we stayed there’ is etched in his memory, he can’t recall the town’s name or how he got there. As the shimmering music ebbs away, he drives off into the distance towards ‘a valley filled with frozen clouds’. Beautifully and disturbingly strange.
We’re still on the road, this time in a car driven by the Man in the Moon with your brother Bill in the passenger seat. A lurching rhythm (another Beefheart nod) is punctuated by slurred slide guitar, hi-hat rattles, saloon-bar piano and stabs of atonal synth. You can almost smell the bourbon.
The Duke’s Saharan Ambitions
A bit of a left turn here which swaps the parched desert highway for the far East. A looping, almost raga-like piece, it has its nice touches – the ‘Fripp in a wind tunnel’ guitar in the middle adds a pleasingly ragged texture – but overall it feels a little aimless and out of place, and is the only misstep on the album. You can’t help feeling that in the pre-CD age this wouldn’t have made the cut…
…as is the case with this one, at least not in the form it appeared here – a 23-minute medley that includes three minutes of silence. (Remember when CDs first appeared and everyone felt the urge to have ‘hidden tracks’ and similar nonsense? I’m glad everyone eventually grew out of that.) The first section, ‘Wheelhouse’ itself, finds us back where the album belongs: in a one-horse town where ‘the light hangs in the dust’ and the big gears grind in the threshing room. The insistent metallic guitar riff captures the grind of the gears, and Thomas returns to his theme of desolation and mystery: ‘No one knows who you used to be / or where you’ve been / or what you’ve done / or the things that you’ve felt’.
After the three-minute silence, we’re treated to a delightfully brittle take of ‘Fly’s Eye’. The finale is the dreamy, glossy krautrock groove of ‘My Name Is…’ Stretching over twelve minutes, it features Thomas manipulating the vocalisation of title phrase through a computer over meandering organ and Tom Herman’s exemplary, fluid guitar work.
St Arkansas (2002)
The Fevered Dream Of Hernando DeSoto
Four years down the line, and we’re still in familiar territory: ‘in the midday sun’ on ‘the mighty road’. Driven by a rattling snare pattern, it’s an energetic slice of warped surf-rock, the keening guitar having a faint echo of the Pixies. The vibrant energy of the music contrasts effectively with Thomas’ weary resignation: ‘In the withered heart of the modern man, is there no hope to find that some things are worthy?’
One of the joys of Thomas’ lyrics (which I’m only just beginning to get my head around) is the contrast of mundane everyday details (‘there’s a sign that says, “Good Cod Dinner, Fridays, $5.95” / “Good Steakeye Dinner, Saturdays, $5.95″‘) with evocative, poetic lyricism (‘I saw stars in strange constellations / trapped inside the blackness of never-ending night / seen through the pearly luminescence of shatterproof glass / framed by the wrong side of green velour / and maybe it felt like home’).
A brisk but considered shuffle featuring a jazzy organ and dabs of oddly fractured percussion, it’s yet another song that captures the romance of the open highway: ‘I love that road, I love the way it yields to me / it sorta breathes and whispers out my name’.
The ominous introduction finds Thomas crooning menacingly over grainy, flickering noise; the remainder of the song mixes fragments of semi-industrial grind and tinkling keyboards. He casts himself as an ‘eraser’, a manipulator of his past: ‘ I will rewrite and recast / nothing can haunt the future of my fabulous past’.
An urgent but strangely murky piece of garage punk, filled with surreal imagery: ‘I’m shooting fish in a pearly bath / they think I’m keeping score / sky is up, the sea is glue’. The last minute is an incongruous passage of pastoral guitar.
A sparse, hesitant song, dominated by jazzy piano; it finds Thomas in reflective and resigned mood: ‘Water my earth with no tears / tell passersby just to kick the dust around / it’s in hell that I am bound’.
Verging on the abstract and formless, ‘Lisbon’ throws together coiled, reverberating bass, cymbal splashes, electronic effects and symphonic synth. The vocal is almost entirely dislocated from the surrounding sounds. Perhaps a tale of sexual rejection – ‘my baby done told me she does not feel frisky / I have been informed, she will not be warmed /
by dark liquid eyes / which do not appeal to her’ – it’s darkly unsettling.
Hard to imagine ‘a monstrous spittoon’ hanging in the air, but this a masterful mix of stalking menace and abandoned thrash.
Phone Home Jonah
After a sequence of dark and reflective songs, this pumps up the volume and the energy with a busy slice of post-punk melodrama. Hard to unravel precisely, but there’s some sort of biblical imagery going on: ‘I will phone home, Jonah, from the belly of the whale / saying, “Hang on, buddy, I shoulda knowed”.’
Where’s The Truth
Musically angular but delicate, Thomas’ vocal wanders around the stuttering rhythm, only occasionally touching base with the beat. Deliciously meandering and touching: ‘I cannot help it if I fall in love / some things are not meant to be’.
A gloriously intense, repetitive piece of whirling, hypnotic post-punk-psych. Not a second is wasted. We’re back on the road: driving ‘into the wilderness’; ‘and I drive because I do what I want / and I drive because I was born to drive / and I drive because every ghost town rising in the dust feels like a home to me.’ It’s insanely, deliriously captivating; no more so than when Thomas strikes a final, apocalyptic note: ‘And I drive because the angels fly / and I drive because I fear the coming of the night / the fearsome night / I agreed to pay the price’.
I can’t remember the last time that an album (or, in this case, two of them) inhabited my world in this fashion. I know that I have much work to do to take in fully the broader scope of Pere Ubu’s work, but for now I am just revelling in being captivated by these two incredible pieces of music. I shall return, but for now I must get back to They All Exist…
Oh, and to explain the title of this piece: