Avant garde rock and roll
At first glance this disc looked like a bad joke. Was Pere Ubu becoming a cover band that performed golden oldies from the past like “Mona” (Bo Diddley), “My Boyfriend’s Back” (the Angels), “Blue Velvet” (Bobby Vinton), and “Love Song” (too many artists too mention)? The first play through made it clear this was not so. The titles might be familiar, but Pere Ubu is in no danger of playing smarmy retreads. These are all original songs. Frontman David Thomas is just up to his old tricks, or in the parlance of postmodern times—employing bricolage—by using the names of romantic hits from the past to make an ironic statement in the present tense. He’s putting the words in a different context to make a point. These aren’t love songs. As the album title Why I Hate Women suggests, Thomas wants to show the pain caused by human relationships.
The music still carries plenty of Pere Ubu’s trademark dissonance. There are lots of angular rhythms, weird noises, and bouncy beats that speed up and slow down at seemingly random intervals. Robert Wheeler employs the Theremin to great effect on many songs that seem to take place in a mad professor’s laboratory, with odd effects bubbling through the instrumentation. And Thomas still frequently sings with that halfway hiccup in his voice, as if he can’t get the words out without being slightly nauseous. The overall sound tells one right up front that life is ugly and hard. But there is also a subtle beauty in the noise. The music is not random, but made up of repetitive patterns that sometimes blossom into climaxes. Thomas’s vocalizations often take on the characteristics of a jazz instrument, snaking through the seemingly improvised arrangements. The songs reward the careful listener with a kind of grace. Yes, Thomas may hate women, love, and such, but he can’t help being attracted to life and all the rest. Pere Ubu understands the seductive power of the sensual world, as well as its weirdness, and often expresses this through sound more than actual language.
While the album contains plenty of high volume hijinks, there are also eerie silences. The effect is like taking a radial buzzsaw to the heart and shutting it off, to hear the wailing sirens of ambulances coming in the distance. The quiet also allows one to hear the lyrics better. Thomas writes some oddball non sequiturs that appear to be interior monologues spoken to whoever cares to listen. The lyrics to several tunes cannot be understood from beginning to end, but dark snippets stand out: “I live in a house without any windows,” “There’s ghosts in the barn, and I don’t like what I hear,” “The future’s worse than that,” “I know that it’s you, so I hope that it’s you, I fear it’s you.” The most coherent narrative is the six-minute “Texas Overture,” which seems to be a travelogue of Lone Star barbecue offerings. The yummy foodstuffs are piled up high enough to make one gluttonously sick. As with love, the fleshly pleasures of meat are simultaneously an obsessive turn-on and a turn-off. The point of the chorus, “Texas is the land of the free,” is clear. One is free to grossly overeat until bursting. And as we have a former Texas governor as the nation’s leader, the implication that America overconsumes as a country is an easy point to draw.
The seeming peculiarity of Pere Ubu’s dense sound and the surface gloominess of the lyrics belie the fact that the band actually creates fun music. This may not be party music, but it will raise the adrenaline, if not the testosterone, of those who listen. Put it on and prepare to jump around the room and shake things up. This is not dance music per se, but it would be impossible to sit still while the music’s playing.
// Notes from the Road
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