This year marks the 35th anniversary of the groundbreaking 1978 Pere Ubu debut album, The Modern Dance. Chances are, unless you’re a scholar of weird, atonal rock (avant-garage as the band, or maybe their journalists, would dub it) or a rock critic, you’ve probably never heard it. Pere Ubu was, and has always been, a band that has eschewed the limelight: they rarely promote their records and don’t tour extensively. But to a select few, this Cleveland-founded band is one worth fighting for – even if they can be abrasive as they were on The Modern Dance, an album that has special resonance for me. When I bought my first used turntable in 2000 and got into vinyl collecting, a 1999 Italian repressing of The Modern Dance was the very first record that I bought. (Well, I purchased Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out at the very same time, but, for the sake of some Pere Ubu nostalgia, let’s pretend I didn’t.) I remember bringing it to the counter of the indie record store, and distinctly recall what the guy behind the counter, the store owner as it would turn out, had to say: “This is such an essential purchase, but the first four or so albums are all classics. David Thomas – the way he uses his voice, it’s like he’s a musical instrument.” Well, the clerk/store owner was right. I took the disc home and put it on the record player, and was pretty much blown away by how Thomas could bend his voice into chirp-like yelps. This wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll. It was art. And it might have been a bit jazzy, too. If you ever wonder where the Pixies’ Black Francis got his bag of tricks, I’d like to think it was probably from listening to The Modern Dance.
So it’s a great pleasure to see Pere Ubu still going strong some 35 years after that landmark record. And while Thomas’ voice is not quite as instrumental as it used to be, Lady from Shanghai sees the band basically updating, if not upending, their original formula and sometimes pushing it into nearly, dare I say?, electronica territory. In fact, Lady from Shanghai, which shares its name with a 1947 film noir directed by and starring Orson Welles (tagline: “I told you…you know nothing about wickedness”), is being called a “dance record” in the press release, where Thomas is as cryptic as ever: “The dancer is the puppet of the dance. It’s long past time somebody puts an end to this abomination. Lady from Shanghai has fixed the problem. What is the problem? Dance encourages the body to move without permission.” So, yeah, I guess what he’s trying to say is that even though this album may use electronic flourishes, it’s not really something you can take down to the club with you. Still, Lady from Shanghai is remarkably, save for a track or two, accessible, a word that fans of the band probably haven’t heard to describe one of their records since 1989’s pop-oriented Cloudland, which briefly got some MTV airing and minor chart success. And while it doesn’t quite blow The Modern Dance out of the water, Lady from Shanghai is astonishingly good. There’s a sense of poetry to many of these dark and minor-key songs, with dream imagery cropping up in the final batch of songs. (“What part of the dream is true? / And what part of the truth is a dream?” goes the song “414 Seconds”, which, yes, runs exactly that length – almost seven minutes for the time impaired.) If Lady from Shanghai is a disco record, it clearly is a nightmarish one, fill with all sorts of self-loathing and self-deception. Case in point, there’s a song here called “Musicians Are Scum”. This is clearly a record of “wickedness”, to borrow from the Welles film promotional blurb, indeed.
But for all of its portending doom and gloom, Lady from Shanghai actually gets off on a pop footing. Opening song “Thanks” sees Thomas singing, “You can go to hell, go to hell, my belle” to the vocal melody of the 1979 Anita Ward disco hit “Ring My Bell”, which is actually quite a bit fitting as the song has been oft-covered (anyone remember the DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince version – anyone?) and has taken on a life of its own. This is simply Thomas, who is the band’s sole constant, bending pop culture to fit his own particular aesthetic, and once you twig into what he’s doing, a sort of plundering and plagiarism, the song is particularly riveting, considering, too, that the song starts off with the stuttering sound of static and then lurches into some electro-beats, woodwinds and violin stabs. In essence, Pere Ubu is subverting dance music here, and it does so with a deft hand. (And, remember, this is a band that would re-appropriate the names of popular songs and make them their own.) But then things take a turn into darker territory with the song being promoted on the Web, “Free White”: “I want you to know / I never wanted to spoil your party”, Thomas utters over a bleak guitar line and throbbing bass. This theme of ruination spills over throughout the rest of the record: “Musicians Are Scum” sees Thomas asking the musical question, “Why don’t you get in line with all those others whose lives I’ve ruined?”
And for all of the talk of this being a dance-y record, there are plenty of off-kilter rock moments here that yield back to the band’s past glories: “Musicians Are Scum” starts out with a chiming guitar chord played over and over, before the rest of the band kicks in to create a soundscape that sounds like it came from an old science-fiction movie. And then there’s the garage-y, blues stomp of “Lampshade Man”, which kicks out the jams in a suitably grungy manner, and, in an alternate universe, could have been a hit for the White Stripes, perhaps. But there’s also throwbacks to their musique concrete leanings, too. Final six-minute song “The Carpenter Sun” is Pere Ubu at their abstract, a collage of various keyboard sound effects and lurching percussion, as Thomas recites poetry over the garish sounds. One may not be sure what it’s doing here, given the relative peppiness of the rest of the record, but it’s just Pere Ubu being Peru Ubu. And, speaking of the weird, “Feuksley Ma’am, The Hearing” is basically five minutes of pseudo-krautrock rhythms, complete with an indecipherable foreign voice (is it German?) speaking over the length of the track. So there are elements here of, as Hunter S. Thompson would put it, the weird going pro. The whole outsider aesthetic of the group is probably best summarized on “Mandy” with the lines: “I’m on the outskirts of nowhere / I’m in the bottom of forever.”
Lady from Shanghai is a relatively strong release from a classic band, albeit one that never really got popular with the masses. It is true that some of the songs could have the fat trimmed off them – five of the album’s 11 tracks run more than five minutes long – but, aside from that minor complaint, there’s a lot to love about this record. It is simultaneously mainstream sounding and yet doesn’t abstain from the band’s artier leanings. I don’t think you can quite dance to this record, and, yet, if you’re weird enough, you might just be able to find a way to. Lady from Shanghai finds Pere Ubu bopping to the beat of their own drum, while making inroads and concessions to the world of pop culture, without ever “selling out” or sounding something unlike they are. If, 35 years ago, they were exploring “the modern dance”, Lady from Shanghai is a retelling of that sound. There’s a real groove to be found here for those up for a slight challenge, and there are moments that are almost commercial in ambition. The Modern Dance marked just how important Pere Ubu was as a new wave, post punk band. Lady from Shanghai simply continues that grand tradition – making it modern dance music for the year 2013.
- “Free White” Soundcloud