Ever since my teen years, I’ve had this problem with my hair. I just can’t be satisfied. When it’s too flat, I run my hand through it, but then it looks like a dorsal fin, and that’s just too weird. I also spent years mostly refusing to brush it. It’s all tied up with my identity, and I just won’t be satiated. I want to stand out, but not too much. This internal problem of mine came to mind as I was listening to Pere Ubu’s newest reissue, Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés: 1987-1991. It shows a band known for abrasive rock music, with a vocalist more likely to screech than harmonize, taking a left turn towards late ’80s radio pop-rock. And just like my hair when I truly brushed it for a few months, it’s looks good, but maybe only in hindsight. Pere Ubu was insatiable as well.
The last reissue, which covered 1979-1882, found the band extending the ‘avant-garage’ sound of their first two albums, but somewhat running out of steam by 1982’s Song of the Bailing Man. The band took a six-year hiatus, and David Thomas moved on quite quickly with an expansive solo career, releasing no less than five full-length albums between 1982 and 1987. In the process, he got back together with some old band mates and decided to retake a swing at Pere Ubu, but this time with a twist. Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés follows Pere Ubu through their take on mainstream rock music. Don’t worry; Pere Ubu is too weird to pass. Yes, the music is a little slicker and uses more of-the-time sounds, but it’s still bizarre.
From up high, the albums contained within are all an exploration of being slicker, more accessible, more ‘Pop’. Each album has its own personality though. While prepping for the review, I often put all three proper albums (exempting the “Lost” album, which is a mixture of all the sessions) on shuffle and I was able to quickly identify the home album for any particular track, as they each have their own set of signifiers.
The Tenement Year is a streamlining of Pere Ubu’s sound, yes, but like me running my hands through my hair to muss it up just a little, Pere Ubu takes pop-rock songs and lets the keyboard player squeak, squawk, and burble over the top. It’s like the band was afraid to be accessible, scared to be called a ‘sell-out’, so they let the keyboard player twiddle knobs throughout the tracks. The closing track, “We Have The Technology”, is a perfect symbol for the rest of the album. It has the foundation to be an eternal touchstone of late ’80s indie rock (think “Where Is My Mind?” or “Freak Scene”), but as it is, it’s a solid song with a bunch of atonal sounds thrown on top to hide itself from widespread notice.
Cloudland is the best of the bunch, as it allows itself to just be without too much excursion. It’s essentially an indie rock record with a few quirks thrown in here and there. It’s like R.E.M. fired Michael Stipe and hired a carnival barker that writes beat poetry. “Ice Cream Truck” is possibly the best song of the entire reissue. It’s catchy, and it’s eccentric, which is what you would want from this era of Pere Ubu.
Worlds In Collision is sneakily the most experimental of the bunch. A cursory listen will tell you that it is the most accessible, as the production is loaded with of-the-time production tricks, but what is bubbling underneath is a band unable to keep their hands off the knobs. It starts with possibly the most accessible song of their career, “Catherine”, where David Thomas actually sings, and the backing band does not throw in any noise, most likely against someone’s will. Later though, the album shows itself. “Turpentine!” was basically an excuse for the band to play with mainstream electronic sounds and production.
“World in Collision” is an explosive rock track, yet after the second chorus, the song devolves into a swamp of stock synth tones for 15 seconds. Stranger yet, “Over the Moon” is an honest-to-god romantic pop song led by accordion, which finds Thomas singing, “I wanna live like the people in love that I see advertised.” The experimentation has come full-circle here. When a band previously seemingly unable to make a song that did not incorporate machine noises somewhere have now constructed a song that would not sound out of place on a Thompson Twin’s Radio shuffle, something has twisted out of shape. For a band so strange, a mainstream sound is experimental.
The title of the reissue, “Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés”, is an old Zydeco phrase meaning “The beans are not salty.” It’s a reference to hard times, meaning the people don’t even have enough to spice up their food. Maybe these were hard times for David Thomas and Pere Ubu, but it’s hard to see that. They had their only hits over these years, they had money to record outside of their own homes, and the music just sounds fun most of the time.
After these albums, and the not-included Story of My Life, the band moved back towards their noisy roots, where they have nestled ever since. They must have given up this experiment for a reason, but in hindsight, it was a pleasant one, at least for the listeners. On another note, I’ve been thinking of buzzing my hair for the summer. I’m sure that will be just a phase as well.