Edgy intensity intrigues, but sometimes cloys
In my mind, the Talking Heads and Pere Ubu are inextricably linked by an edgy intensity, but that shallow connection is unfair to both bands. Arriving at around the same time, both acts centered on nervous, unlikely leaders and each helped establish the new wave iconoclast ideal, confidently creating strange music that ignored conventional formulas. But where David Byrne was socially awkward and soft-spoken, David Thomas was effusively manic and unapologetically odd. While the Talking Heads reached a larger audience with their art-school sensibility, Pere Ubu was unquestioningly more experimental and challenging. That was always part of the appeal, though. Appreciating the spasmodic rhythms and Thomas’ expressive yowls satisfied a hipster need for esoteric flavors. Like Captain Beefheart a decade earlier, Pere Ubu’s music made more sense after repeated sessions, even if it remained hard to explain.
In sharp contrast with the mainstream, Thomas was more interested in exploring musical ideas than commercial success and he seemed ambivalent about keeping the band going. A brief flirtation with MTV popularity in 1989 with “Waiting For Mary” was their peak, rising above an underground cult cachet, and they’ve drifted in and out of hiatus since then.
With their more recent albums, Thomas has been more forthcoming about his artistic intent. Seemingly in response to their first album, The Modern Dance (1978), the press release for Pere Ubu’s latest asserts an anti-dance message, “Smash the hegemony of dance…Lady From Shanghai is an album of dance music fixed.” The opening tune, “Thanks”, tackles that mission head on. It’s vaguely structured like an electronic track with a solid beat and a simple repeated line, “You can go to Hell,” that satirizes Anita Ward’s disco hit “Ring my bell”, but the assembled layers sound more like organic tape overdubs than stiff digital loops. This send up proves to be one of the few concessions that the band makes to modern musical trends. Otherwise, the album largely relies on Pere Ubu’s classic new wave foundation.
Beyond the down-with-dance theme, the band offers up a companion book of “liner notes” called Chinese Whispers. Thomas explains the title as an alternate name for the game of “Telephone” and outlines how he’s used that metaphor as a strategy to develop Lady From Shanghai. The album is an outcome of this production technique rather than a compositional approach. Separating his role as producer from performance, he minimizes context for band members, sequestering them to develop and record their parts so the collected elements lead to an unpredictable result. This is similar to some of Frank Zappa’s techniques of conducting a band sans score. Tracks like the plaintive jazz deconstruction on “The Road Trip of Bipasha Ahmed” or the eerie beauty of “Mandy” derive their underlying tension from Thomas’ rootless process and unplanned juxtapositions.
At its best, Lady From Shanghai delivers the off-kilter sound that made Pere Ubu so attractive back in the new wave dawn. “Free White”, “And Then Nothing Happened”, and “Lampshade Man” all have the same fingerprint whorl of discordant post-punk guitars, sharp beats, and quirky, meandering vocals. Some of the stranger digressions present their own charming character. “Feuksley Ma’am, The Hearing” shows Thomas’ heavier production hand, packed with cut and pasted samples of Thomas Edison’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. Infused with static like a mutilated message from the past, it’s trippy and delightfully bizarre.
The project’s big weakness is that several songs are self-conscious in their oddity. “Feuksley Ma’am” distracts like a shiny bauble but doesn’t leave a deep impression. The experimental minimalism of “The Carpenter Sun” embraces an abstract collage of sound that revels in harsh tones and loose rhythms, but lacks focus. “414 Seconds” features Thomas slamming a poetic spoken word riff over clashing melodic lines. In a moment of confession, he asks, “Did I do that terrible thing only in my dream? Or is the dream simply a tawdry bid for self-deception?” The question’s relevance becomes a bit too meta for the piece.
It’s fitting that Thomas recommends in Chinese Whispers, “Reach a separate peace with Failure.” Things won’t be perfect because failure is inevitable; missing the mark slightly is a sign that Pere Ubu is still reaching for an admirable goal.
(This review originally appeared in Spectrum Culture)