Release Date: Jan 8, 2013
Record label: Fire Records
When Pere Ubu released The Modern Dance in 1978, they were lightyears ahead of their time. The band didn’t sound of Cleveland, let alone of this Earth. Listen to “Sentimental Journey” now, then imagine what most Americans had on their turntables at the time—funky white dudes wearing sequined jumpsuits, or rock stars who lived for arenas, tight pants and AM radio.
As one of the finest bands to emerge from the initial wave of post punk, Pere Ubu were at the forefront of figuring out what should emerge from the ashes of one of rock’s most influential subgenres. But having been around for four decades since its inception, Pere Ubu were at some point faced with another challenge – what, if anything, comes post post-punk? If their fifteenth album Lady From Shanghai is their definitive answer to that question, it’s as curious a reply as their initial efforts ever sounded. It is rock music – sort of – but devoid of so many of its defining characteristics that the label only applies because it fits them slightly better than any other.
“I am in a lot of ways a grotesque character, and the band has a grotesque character,” said Pere Ubu’s protagonist David Thomas and documented in Simon Reynolds’ set-text Rip It Up and Start Again. “What we are is not pretty”. It is 35 years since Pere Ubu’s ‘avant-garage’ debut masterpiece The Modern Dance was released. For the first 34 seconds of album opener Non-Alignment Pact, the listener has to withstand ear-piercing, high-pitched feedback with brief sharp interludes of bass and guitar: it’s unpleasant and certainly not pretty.
Thirty-five years after releasing The Modern Dance, Pere Ubu delivered Lady from Shanghai, an album that bandleader David Thomas described as "dance music, fixed." That's a pretty bold declaration, and almost as attention-getting as the band naming its 2006 album Why I Hate Women (after a fictional novel). Dance music may or may not need fixing, but for a band as dedicated to questioning authority and assumptions as Pere Ubu, even the mindlessness of a hip-shaking beat could become the enemy. While most of Lady from Shanghai's controversy resides in its concept, the results find the band subverting the notion of danceable music in clever ways.
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.
Even as their seminal debut LP The Modern Dance prepares to celebrate its thirty-fifth anniversary, legendary Ohio post-punk future-shapers Pere Ubu show little inclination to trade off past glories. Their first for the Fire imprint (also currently home to fellow post-punk notables Mission Of Burma and Guided By Voices), Lady From Shanghai is Ubu’s 14th studio LP and their first touting all-new material since 2006’s Why I Hate Women. It can’t ever realistically hold a candle to The Modern Dance or its seismic follow-up Dub Housing, but it regularly flirts with inspiration.
I’ve been struggling with some back problems for about a year now, forcing me to dine regularly on a cocktail of anti-inflammatories and pain killers. Usually, my body seems to process these without noticeable side effects, but the other day, while listening to Pere Ubu’s new album, they hit me with a vengeance. As the seven minute Mandy played on my iPod, I was struck by a loopiness so extreme and distracting that I actually felt something akin to physical pain.
Chinese Whispers, David Thomas’ accompanying book to Pere Ubu’s Lady From Shanghai, explains the album’s process as this: “the goal was to meticulously apply a Chinese Whispers methodology to the composition and recording of a coherent and complex musical work.” The Chinese Whispers, which, much like the Chinese finger trap, is not an actual Chinese product and refers to the children’s/drinking game (a.k.a. “telephone”), intends to apply a sort of social deviation to a spoken phrase, and the result is usually humorous. I’ll spare you from rehashing the conceptual depth/intent of Lady From Shanghai and will instead follow the shared result between the social game and Thomas’ theory: Humor.
Thirty-five years on from their debut, post-punk oddballs Pere Ubu are still enraptured by the off kilter. Granted, no-one was ever expecting collaborations with Donny Osmond, but it is generally a given for people to mellow somewhat with age. The Lady From Shanghai is by no means mellow; a cacophonous, eerie and uncompromising record, it is nonetheless a rewarding one - even if the rewards are on occasion slightly disturbing.
It's 35 years since "avant garage" pioneers Pere Ubu released their debut album, The Modern Dance – one of the first and still greatest art-rock records – but bandleader David Thomas hasn't stopped messing with the settings of rock'n'roll since. The 17th Pere Ubu studio album, Lady from Shanghai, is accompanied by a lengthy primer on the album's conception and making, which employed a kind of musical "Chinese whispers": members recorded their parts in isolation, unrehearsed but according to Thomas's quite particular and faintly perverse rules, aiming for some magical, paradoxical midpoint between the written song and pure improvisation. So … does all this make for an enjoyable record? In large part, yes: Another One (Oh Maybelline) is a terrifically moody, swooping electro-rocker; Lampshade Man's jerky, churning riff is a real earworm; and on the whole, given its strange, fragmentary creation, it sounds remarkably cogent and coherent.
M.C. Escher’s 1936 sketch Still Life with Street was the graphic artist’s first piece to depict an impossible reality. Upon first glance, the eyes meet the foreground—a desk adorned with playing cards, a pipe, and stacked books—as well as a similarly tame background, a street scene looking down an alley between two adjacent buildings. The target of the visual field is quickly discovered to be an imposter; the eyes tell the brain that something’s amiss, though it’s all but impossible to discern.
David Thomas wryly claims that Pere Ubu's 15th studio album, Lady From Shanghai, is "dance music fixed", the 'problem' being that dance music "encourages the body to move without permission. " That this problem could in fact, be the entire point of dance music does not dissuade the Ubu singer from applying his refusenik tendencies to his own perceptions of the genre. Although it's tempting to imagine Thomas lurking backstage while some unnamed electro tune throbbed through the dressing room walls as he plotted some future revenge against the "tyranny of the four-by-four beat", the resulting recording isn't quite as radical a departure from the band's signature sound as the image may suggest.
A creative leader in rock and New Wave in the ’70s and ’80s, Cleveland’s Pere Ubu has spent the past two decades perfecting its disappearing and reappearing act. In that time, singer David Thomas, the only member who’s been there from the start, and the experimental rock band have swapped line-ups and quietly turned out solid records that fly under the critical radar like clockwork with every release.Pere Ubu is no stranger to concept albums, most recently illuminated by St. Arkansas, 2002’s tale of a highway trucker who fatally loses his grip on reality.
First new album for three years from Cleveland’s famously experimental sons. Martin Longley 2013 Lady From Shanghai is Pere Ubu’s 15th studio album of a 37-year career (discounting a five-year break in the 1980s). These ornery Cleveland outsiders inherited most of their sonically difficult qualities from wobbling ’n’ quavering vocalist David Thomas, who has been their only constant member.
Marking 35 years since their landmark debut album ‘The Modern Dance’, Pere Ubu’s first studio recording in three years is a suitably abstruse, challenging and dense record, and yet another example of how Pere Ubu remain at the very peak of experimental avant rock.The Pere Ubu of 2012 may have entirely different personnel than in 1976 with only founder member and sonic visionary David Thomas remaining, but in terms of ideology and commitment to making progressive music that challenges and, at times, unsettles their audience they remain as relevant as ever. ‘Lady From Shanghai’ is, we’re told, is an album of dance music. Dance music from Pere Ubu’s ever so slightly warped mind, that is.