Music

Pere Ubu: Lady from Shanghai

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.


Pere Ubu

Lady from Shanghai

Label: Fire
US Release Date: 2013-01-08
UK Release Date: 2013-01-07
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image