David Thomas—founder of Cleveland’s legendary proto-punks Rocket from the Tombs and frontman for the massively influential Pere Ubu—currently resides on the south coast of England, in Brighton & Hove. Until its makeover as one of the happening sites of so-called Cool Britannia in the ‘90s, Brighton was—like most UK coastal resorts—perhaps best known as a haven for the elderly. The presence of the middle-aged Thomas forges a connection of sorts between the area’s traditional, aging constituency and a new, younger population responsible for the town’s more recent rebirth as a locus of pop culture cool.
That’s not to say that Thomas has been spending his time on the floor at the Boutique and hanging out with the likes of Norman Cook. His latest project, Surf’s Up!, is about as far from big beat as you could get, having little to do with beats or mindless dance fun. Rather, it comprises off-kilter, cerebral soundscapes averaging around six minutes apiece that only the barking mad or the truly inspired would be able to dance to.
While this eleventh solo album by the artist formerly known—during his Rocket from the Tombs days—as Crocus Behemoth is more accessible than some of his recent ventures away from Pere Ubu, it’s still not easy listening by any stretch of the imagination. Surf’s Up! throws the norms of conventional rock/pop song structure out of the window. Instead, Thomas and his cohorts—Andy Diagram (Diagram Brothers, James, and Spaceheads) and Keith Moline (Infidel and Mesmerist)—craft jazz-nuanced, avant-folk arrangements that often sprawl, ending without a sense of closure. Minimal, fragmented instrumentation (primarily melodeon, guitar, and trumpet) threads its way in and out of the mix as Thomas’ unique, neurotic falsetto weaves across an imagined landscape whose mental scenery ranges from the simply quirky to the dark and nightmarish.
In places, largely due to Thomas’ asthmatic melodeon, the songs have an out-of-whack fairground feel to them that evokes the work of another great American eccentric, Tom Waits. This is particularly true of tracks like “Man in the Dark”, on which Thomas croons ludic, obscure lyrics. No less idiosyncratic is the haunting “River”, which wanders for nine-plus minutes with mildly unsettling results as Thomas mutters away, backed by reverberating, squalling horns and electronic undercurrents.
The most captivating interlude can be heard in the alienated nostalgia of the title track, a deconstructed cover of the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks song complete with mesmerizing instrumental textures and subtle vocal harmonies.
In places Surf’s Up! does become more purposeful, more rhythmically oriented, although the songs of which this is true are no less open-ended. Plucked banjos, pulsing guitars, and trumpet bursts imbue “Runaway” with a rigid, rising intensity; beneath Thomas’ eerie, whispered vocals, “Night Driving” has a subtly motorik groove that’s enhanced by its intermittent car-horn brass. “Spider in My Stew” is similarly focused on rhythm as repeating patterns of chugging, almost mechanical guitars and discordant horns push the track to a hypnotic climax.
Given Thomas’ current geographical whereabouts, the title Surf’s Up! is somewhat ironic—England’s South Coast is certainly not the mythical Southern California of the Beach Boys. And yet there’s a sense in which this is a quintessentially American album. Thomas’ music on this record conjures up wide-open, ever-expanding spaces as his lyrical voice partakes in a long tradition of lone mutterers and mad prophets from Whitman to Berryman and Ginsberg, and beyond.