Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Now It's...Parking Lots. -- Pere Ubu in Their Pop Phase

I've let this blog sit for various reasons, partly as a result of moving and shaking back in the real world, partly to try and get myself situated for a few discussions that are more in line with the underlying motivation, which is to talk about current and recent musical explorations more than older ones I want to bring to the light, as I've been doing recently. There are some flaws with that plan, mostly stemming from the fact that I'm generally headed in one direction musically of late. I don't think even many people I know, let alone a ton of people in general, are looking to read about this or that post-punk band or strange, unique 80s alternative band of even other stripes. At the same time, I'm treading familiar ground for many people, which can be a nice confirmation boost for some (including myself when I read similar things), but isn't news and becomes disposable.

I don't know who you know, or who he knows, or she knows, or they know, and sometimes I don't even know who my best friends or family know. I've had nothing but bemused pleasure at sitting my father down for bands he'd discarded in the avalanche of music in the 70s in particular and was surprised to find himself appreciating more. But that's an unusual instance, and most people I know either don't pay attention to music or already know all the underground-popular bands I do.

Today I'm going to talk about one that I'm not sure of anyone's familiarity with, beyond one friend. Brian and I shift bands back and forth, and he will nudge me toward the odd one established in the last two decades, and I will nudge him usually with the force of more years of musical exposure from the father and friends I've had. Of late, there's been a willing trade of post punk and alternative bands, where I hit some first and he hits a lot of others first. His willingness to dive in to digital formats makes his access to them a lot more rapid, so he got through The Cure far faster than I did, for instance, but my bull-headed insistence on "getting" a band I cross my fingers and literally buy into, physically, and get chunks of side-story on via both text and "bonus" tracks gives me a different point of view on them.

Or, sometimes, we just attack a band from different periods in their career. To sort of amusingly illustrate the band I'm going to talk about, here is David Thomas, vocalist for Pere Ubu, answering the bizarre question, "Do you think you've improved with age?" by comparing his band to...a cup.

 Pere Ubu is one of the few American bands to squeeze into that peculiar time frame that is so aptly named "post punk" and able to have carved out a kind of space in that time. Most of the American bands from that genre tended to come in once the 80s started, even if very early in that year. To be sure, America produced some fine punk bands, some of which morphed into something more like post-punk or the more experimental variety of new wave, like Talking Heads and Devo, but the bands most associated with the genesis of post punk were almost universally British. Joy Division, Gang of Four, The Cure, Wire, The Fall, Public Image Ltd, and so on. It's not a hard and fast rule by any means, but when a lot of the sound is defined by bands like Joy Division, it takes on a pretty British bent, even if that's only a lens through which it's viewed. Nevermind that for a while most bands from the United States in this musical "vicinity" tended to end up more "new wave" and palatable and less dour, confrontational and bleak in their aural oddities, like my beloved Oingo Boingo.

Of course, perhaps the more amusing part of this is that America had somehow managed to beat everyone to the punch, much as the Ramones technically beat out the Sex Pistols, though the Pistols stole their thunder as originators of punk, or at least those who took it to a more visible and influential excess. Indeed, Television's Marquee Moon was released February 8, 1977 and their first single ("Little Johnny Jewel" Parts 1 [A-side] and 2 [B-side]) was even way back in 1975. And yet, somehow, that album manages to be--retrospectively, obviously--considered post-punk. It's not unfair if we just stop and listen, either. Let's stop and do that really quick, as Television is never unwelcome, and I'm all for hearing one of my favourites of theirs, "Venus":

Similarly, the band I intend to more firmly discuss, Pere Ubu, is also from the United States. Of all places, they are from Cleveland. Yeah, in Ohio. And they released their first album in 1978, and their first single in 1975. Now, Pere Ubu is perhaps more in the "art rock" or "experimental rock" category, with the likes of the original intents of Devo. Or, well, so I've heard. You know how I mentioned that sometimes my friend Brian and I approach bands from different time periods? Well, he had checked out Pere Ubu via their connections to post punk, and I shrugged when he brought them up and hit YouTube to see what happened.

What I came across was this:

This is their October, '89 single from the album Cloudland, which was released five months earlier in May. Obviously, both musically and temporally, this is a far cry from post punk. Brian told me he found David Thomas' voice difficult to listen to. Now, I own--finally, after years of extreme distaste--Album - Generic Flipper, nevermind my love for the Blood Brothers and Johnny Whitney's alleged "sounds of a small child being tortured" off-key vocals (including in subsequent band Jaguar Love), and plenty of other weird examples. Heck, I should probably write about the way vocals have influenced by approach to things one of these days, as it was plowing through such things that finally broke me into the realms of extreme metal through a strange methodology.

But I was also listening to a period of Ubu a decade removed from where he was, so things were very different. I later pointed him to this song and was immediately rewarded with the response, "This is...accessible." He went on to make the same comment that I had made mentally, that Thomas is engagingly animated in the video, which was only further emphasized when I saw a performance of the same song from David Sanborn and Jools Holland's brief television show Sunday Night/Night Music--an episode which also managed to feature Debbie Harry, Loudon Wainwright III and Philip Glass (!):

This sold the man and the band to me even more firmly. It's readily evident that Thomas feels the music, feels passion for it and takes it seriously, but not necessarily pompously so. I've never been one to truck with the kind of destructive and firm mentalities like "visuals destroy your personal version of music" or "distract from it" or any such thing. To be sure, sometimes it's more pure to just catch the sounds and nothing more, but that doesn't make that "purity" necessarily "better," and having a visual hook or anchor can help to fall more easily into a band, a song or an album and act as a starting point. On occasions it can be off-putting enough to unfairly decide on disassociation, yes, but I find that to be rare.

I stumbled into copies of the (expanded versions of, naturally) three Ubu albums from the late 80s and early 90s, Cloudland, Worlds in Collision, and Story of My Life. This is a trio of albums consistently (in my reading, at least) referred to as the unexpected--and unexpectedly successful--pop albums. Obviously this defies the notion of a "difficult" band that I've heard described when people, from friends to remote critics, refer to their earlier work. They benefit greatly from the high production values, with touches like the clean, clear guitar hook on "Breath" (anyone who has made the foolish mistake of listening to music with me when I'm excited about it, that lick is one of those things I "point at" and say, "That! I love that!") or the sudden turn to a bass-y, response-oriented recitation of the title of "Waiting for Mary" in its chorus over a lightly ringing guitar.

Naturally, the fact that I currently lack Datapanik in the Year Zero! (collecting most of their early work, in that obnoxious "oh we left off just the three songs" sort of way) means I know little of their early work and cannot rightly compare it, but these albums are quite worthwhile to someone with an ear tuned similarly to mine. They have the sound of their time, which I mean in a positive way, and they have, as many reviews note, strains of the ideology for which they are apparently known, which is a sort of "geographical" relation to lyrics and music, where they aurally describe their origins, formerly the midwest, but here recorded after trips across the far more expansive west and southwest.

Having the weirdly developed ear I have, it's difficult for me to clearly describe any music, and it only becomes worse when discussing unusual bands, and basically impossible when a strange band makes an accessible record. Would it have been at home on the radio in the late 80s or early 90s? Probably. Maybe on both college stations and major ones. It's hard for me to say. The things I find to be hooks--like the two bits mentioned above in "Breath" and "Waiting for Mary," both from Cloudland, which I've heard the most--are not always hooks for everyone else. But then, sometimes, an album comes out and the song I like most is a song the band proceeds to pick as a single. So I'd say, "What do I know?" but apparently I know something like half of things.

Which half is this? I don't know. I think it's a good one, though, and I'd say it's worth at least dipping in for Cloudland.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting about this very underrated and interesting band. Out of all the Pere Ubu albums you've heard, could you make a list of all the songs you consider similar to Breath and Waiting for Mary for that catchy melody you mentioned. Thanks.


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