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Class ?

Main Category: Meta-Rock
Also applicable: Punk/Grunge, Pop Rock
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Pere Ubu fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Pere Ubu fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Postponed until the page is more comprehensive.



Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating = 13

Is this punk or is this, eh, confusion? - Jimi Hendrix.


Track listing: 1) Nonalignment Pact; 2) Modern Dance; 3) Laughing; 4) Street Waves; 5) Chinese Radiation; 6) Life Stinks; 7) Real World; 8) Over My Head; 9) Sentimental Journey; 10) Humor Me.

What happens when you marry the Ramones to Captain Beefheart with a good injection of Faust and Kraftwerk in between? Pere Ubu.

Modern Dance is certainly a tough nut to crack even for the late Seventies. It is, in fact, not quite clear what is the message of David Thomas, Tom Herman and company - it is not even clear if they're 'dark' guys or if they're just having fun in an offensive manner. What is clear is that Modern Dance dares break new ground in music and, to a certain extent, does that, although I'm kinda glad music in general did not take the direction that it was suggested here.

Modern Dance is one of those records that can be shocking and disgusting on first listen, respected rather than enjoyed on second listen, and finally, enjoyed in a shocking and disgusting manner on third listen. These guys sure know their skill; there's enough catchy melodies here to punch the guts of the Sex Pistols, and true to the spirit of 'artsy post-punk' (which renders the term absolutely ridiculous, as much of these tracks were recorded not "post" but actually "pre" punk), the musicians only pretend that they can't play their instruments, or, at certain risky times, don't even pretend, but play them fine. However, way too often they prefer to skip any kind of melody in favour of industrial or just atmospheric sonic collages; there's a huge emphasis on synthesizers, mostly producing ugly, dissonant noise, preferrably of the whiter kind; and David Thomas' vocals are certainly a treat for those who have a masochistic streak in them. He's certainly expressive, though, and that's enough to make him qualify by my standards.

I don't really understand how to describe this album, so please pardon me if I speak utter garbage and nonsense from now on. To me, Modern Dance is certainly an 'artistic statement'. With all capitals: 'ARTISTIC STATEMENT'. It's a bunch of guys who offer their vision of the 'modern' world: a working guy ballet dancing to the 'modern dance' while the ugly chimneys of his factory are waiting for him on the back cover. It's an ironic view, a sarcastic view, a dangerous view. It's all nice. Is it enjoyable? Partially.

Cutting the crap: 'Sentimental Journey' sucks. It is the band's 'Revolution # 9'. A six-minute track of the band breaking bottles. Harmonica wails in a depressive manner in the background, synths grumble murkily, and David Thomas in the dullest voice possible recites lyrics (or, rather, isolated snippets) about nothing. Isn't this a statement? Picturing the grimness and pointlessness of life in the contemporary world and all? It sure is a statement and everything you want it to be - but it certainly is not a listenable musical experience. Leave it be.

On the other hand, the album starts with 'Nonalignment Pact' and 'Modern Dance'. These are two great songs which I absolutely adore. Both are fast, catchy, well played and energetic. I accept the infamous synth-feedback intro to 'Nonalignment Pact' as the obligatory message of welcome, and dig the ensuing song for its cool melody and atmosphere - you gotta listen to everything the synthesizer is performing while Thomas sings about how he's gonna sign a 'nonalignment pact' with his beloved one. The second track is even better, alternating bouncy verses with 'underground collages' - what is the 'modern dance', after all?

In between these two extremities lies everything else. A particular favourite of mine is 'Life Stinks', perhaps the best example of a classic 'ode to paranoia' of the late Seventies: 'Life stinks, I'm seeing pink, I can't wink, I can't blink, I like the Kinks, I need a drink, I can't think, I like the Kinks, life stinks', Thomas shouts out in the blink of an eye (even if he can't blink) before basically going off in a total fit of madness, and his bandmates follow suite - the drummer crashes like mad, and Tom Herman's simplistic, yet effective guitar riff pulsates like the veins of a schizophrenic. (Not that I've ever seen the veins of a schizophrenic). This is definitely the most Beefheart-influenced track of the bunch, but with twice as much sense of purpose and raw energy.

All the other tracks somehow form a blur in my mind - you see, these guys are able to establish a hook, but frankly, they don't really care if they actually do it or not. So every once in a while you get something like 'Chinese Radiation' or 'Humor Me', which constitute an interesting experience first time around but don't really lend themselves to further listening. Well, that's the way it goes with reckless experimenting: for every fit of inspiration, you get a fit of boredom and pretentiousness. Some tracks establish slower, almost balladesque grooves ('Over My Head'), but there's no crucial difference between a P.U. rocker and a P.U. ballad.

In any case, my problems with the album rather lie in the field of 'consistency' than in the field of 'accepting/declining': Modern Dance is an innovative album that shows talent, even if that talent isn't always pointed in the right direction. 'Modern Dance' (the song) certainly should have turned into an anthem for its generation - of course, it was deemed too weird and intricate to achieve that position. And it goes without saying that the album has huge historical importance, although the only reason I add phrases like these to my reviews is in order to fulfill a sort of moral duty. Hey, too many albums have been put on the pedestal just for having 'huge historical importance'. Hitler had huge historical importance, too.

But NO! This is a DANG ENJOYABLE record! Hey, even Ricky Martin keeps it locked in her bedroom all the time! Well, at least I suppose he does. For some reason or other.



Year Of Release: 1995
Overall rating = 11

I envision a time when this kind of music will be heard on every mainstream radio station. A very long time ago, in a galaxy far far away...

Best song: MONTANA

Track listing: 1) Folly Of Youth; 2) Electricity; 3) Beach Boys; 4) Turquoise Fins; 5) Vacuum In My Head; 6) Memphis; 7) Three Things; 8) Horse; 9) Don't Worry; 10) Ray Gun Suitcase; 11) Surfer Girl; 12) Red Sky; 13) Montana; 14) My Friend Is A Stooge For The Media Priests; 15) Down By The River II.

According to my information, this is the first "Pere Ubu" album where David Thomas finally remained as the only 'surviving' member from the Modern Dance lineup. Not that it shows much - for the previous ten years, the band operated on the revolving door principle anyway, and it's one of those King Crimson-style bands where the "idea" and the "spirit" are more important than permanent membership and individual personalities. The only thing that should always be present in Pere Ubu is the vomit-inducing bleating of Mr Thomas, and since his voice only seems to get uglier and uglier with age, this requirement is met a hundred percent.

With the CD age coming on, these albums seem to get longer and longer and try out the patience of us innocent listening sheep to the max. Over an hour long, Ray Gun Suitcase pretty much drained me, and if you ever happened to hate this record, I forgive you - with me, it clicked around the fourth listen, and right before I put it on for the fourth time I was still lamenting about my three hours completely wasted. But that's the way with avantgarde. And Ray Gun Suitcase is, whatchamacallit, your average standard-fare avantgarde music. In fact, I would daringly call it "mainstream avantgarde", if you know what I mean.

If you don't, lemme tell you what I think of this whole business. I think it's pretty ridiculous when snobby avantgarde-lovers slobber over every record which fucks melody and harmony just, well, just because it fucks melody and harmony. Especially nowadays. See, back when the world was still green and dinosaurs were hunting giant ants and all these bands like Pere Ubu were still full of ideas and rock'n'roll still needed these ideas, you could listen to these guys and marvel at how bizarre and mind-opening their deconstruction of punk and other musical genres are. But twenty years later, this has become the norm. They are still playing twisted chords and putting in cranky synth bleeps and singing in that demented voice, but not only have we heard all of it before, we even know that is more or less what we're gonna hear here. No surprises. This is yer average fare avantgarde-rock, and has to be judged as such - that is, exactly how nice it works according to the basic paradigm of avantgarde-rock.

Granted, we have to give Mr Thomas some credit: lots and lots and lots of his old pals have, at one point or another, pretty much given up and returned to more "conventional" music making. Pere Ubu, in the meantime, still sound like a bucketload of shit.

Wait, that was a metaphor. Don't get angry at me. Maybe "bucketload of THE shit" would be a better explanation. Anyway, a few of these tracks are 'normal' - sort of like 'normal alternative rock', which means a basic beat and a basic pop/rock/folk melody and maybe even some sentimental feeling thrown in for good measure, like on 'Beach Boys', which has nothing to do with the Beach Boys but everything to do with the repetitive 'marchin' on the home of the blues' chorus (are the "beach boys" same as the "sailors" referred to in the second verse? Possibly). If there is something to do with the Beach Boys - vaguely - then it's Thomas' acoustic performance of 'Surfer Girl', predictably unrecognizable from its original version because it's arranged more like a ragged Twenties-style country blues. I hate his vocals on that song, which means a 5/5 in the adequacy department, because that's exactly the effect that the old stooge wanted to produce, if I'm not mistaken.

Do you need further descriptions? You probably know how to make one better than me already, even if you haven't heard this album. Remember - any given melody can (and must) fall apart at any given time, preferrably several times over the course of one song. Remember - the song can bore you to tears but redeem itself with just one minor hook subtly inserted in the most predictably unexpected location (like the deliciously nihilistic 'people breed and die... they coooome and they gooooo' intonation in 'Electricity'). Remember - goofy vocal noises produced by as many parts of your vocal tract at the same time as possible definitely count as pluses ('Vacuum In My Head', or rather, in my throat, I'd say). Remember - pretend to have a concept album because one motive (in this case, the motive of the 'ray gun suitcase') has to be repeated in several songs, even if not even your other can effectively guess what it is you're trying to achieve with that concept. And so on.

That said, the record really takes off towards the end for me - and if it's your first time, maybe you could try starting playing it from track 12 if you don't want to suffer needlessly. There's 'Red Sky', an intentionally "non-connected" analogy between Texas and Mars which really sounds amazingly alien-tinged. There's my favourite, the six-minute tragic epic 'Montana', this time a deconstruction of... or rather, a cross between a gypsy tune and a traditional French pop song, with the fiddle and the accordeon battling all over the place and - both in the beginning and at the end - playing this impressive moody melody that really sounds like nothing else I've ever heard. Why Montana? Why 'our rivers our black, our rivers our deep'? Why am I asking the question "why" in a Pere Ubu review of all things?

And then the album ends with the feedback-drenched "post-garage" rocker 'My Friend Is A Stooge For The Media Priests' (coolest song title ever), three minutes of energetic aggressive repetition that feels like a blessing after all the weirdness, and the even more "accessible" 'neo-rock' or whatever ditty called 'Down By The River', which, to me, gives the impression that David Thomas had been listening to a bit too much Pixies - gimme a Black Francis here on vocals and you got yourself a perfect inclusion for Surfer Rosa or maybe even Doolittle.

So in the end, I think it would be wrong to assume that the band are "still experimenting" with this record. David Thomas has spent so much time "experimenting" that it has long before ceased to be "experimenting" for him, rather just filtering his creative ideas through a well-tested and well-used sieve he invented, perfected, and patented so long ago. But it's nice to see that the sieve still works, even if I sure wish he'd cut out three or four of the less interesting tracks on here to make the whole experience more consistent. Damn the CD age.



Year Of Release: 1998
Overall rating = 8

Is this some kind of oblique hint at Pennsylvania being the most boring state in the good ol' US of A?


Track listing: 1) Woolie Bullie; 2) Highwaterville; 3) Sad.TXT; 4) Urban Lifestyle; 5) Silent Spring; 6) Mr Wheeler; 7) Muddy Waters; 8) Slow; 9) Drive; 10) Indiangiver; 11) Monday Morning; 12) Perfume; 13) Fly's Eye; 14) The Duke's Saharan Ambitions; 15) Wheelhouse.

Duh. Whatever. Imagine yourself crawling through a swamp, surrounded with little nasty pricky bushes, with ugly frogs croaking all around you and the filthy water bubbling and the muck getting in your ears and nose and mouth and reeds and stuff entangling your feet so you can only move a few feet per minute and the sun is sinking low and grey nasty clouds are everywhere and it's piddling and pissing with yucky light rain that gradually soaks you from the top and you're hungry and tired and the swamp just never never never seems to end and eventually you just give up and lie down groaning on the nearest tussock and start cursing the day you were born and whatever reason it was that drove you into that swamp in the first place and how nice would it be if at least some huge three-headed monster popped out from under the water and tore you in half - anything but that saggy, naggin' feeling of "being oh so oh so bad but nothing really awful happening in particular"!

That's Pere Ubu's latest album for you. Everywhere I go, I only meet words of appraisal - "whoah, the Peres are still at it when everybody else sold out!". Well, for one thing, I'd have to know what "it" is. First of all, here is an approximate list of bands reviewed on my site that have all done, at one time or another, something similar to what David Thomas proposes to us on here: Captain Beefheart, Coil, Current 93, Einsturzende Neubauten, Faust, Joy Division, King Crimson, Kraftwerk, Ministry, Mr Bungle, Nick Cave, Pavement, Pixies, Primus, Sonic Youth, Swans, Talking Heads, Wire, XTC, and, of course, Pere Ubu themselves. It goes without saying that you have to count this and multiply by at least twenty or thirty (if not two or three hundred) if you want to get to the real number. So get this: Pere Ubu are no more inventive and daring on this record than, I dunno, the Strokes on Is This It. Let's finally cut this crap about "avantgarde" like this still being "avantgarde" today. "Arriereguard" would be more like it.

Not that there's anything wrong with being "arriereguard", but this time around, David Thomas, reunited with a freshly returned Tom Herman, just don't cut it. The whole record is a mess. There are no moody francofied epics like 'Montana' here, nor any straightahead kickass rockers like 'My Friend Is A Stooge'. There are no catchy melodies at all, in fact. The whole experience reeks of industrial muzak, and I do mean muzak: stuff where every single song merges together with both the following and the preceding ones. Grim guitar and synth noises, kooky percussion, and... well, some reviews I've read point out to Thomas' falsetto as a highlight, but have I got news for you buddy: the number of songs on here where Thomas uses his - indeed trademark - falsetto hardly exceeds half the fingers on my right hand, and I've just chopped off the little one and sent it to Pere Ubu headquarters with the message "This was less painful than having to sit through your last album for a bloody six times trying to get it!". (Well, not really, but does sound like a nice idea).

No, there's no falsetto, there's just grumbling and rumbling and mumbling and blabbering and sometimes the "radio effect" on the vocals. And where Thomas does get to sing falsetto, he comes up with stuff like 'The Duke's Saharan Ambitions', which is just Thomas going 'aaaaaah aaaaaah' in an Eastern manner over an Amon Duul Twoish guitar drone or something like that. In my eyes, that is NOT cool, NOT interesting, and NOT involving. In your eyes, it may be the best thing since chocolate eggs. But in that case, you have not suffered over it and I have definitely suffered. And suffering makes one's conscience pure and elevated, so there.

I count the first and last tracks as the best. 'Woolie Bullie' starts out loud and aggressive and tricks you into thinking the record will be dynamic, metallic, and full of power and energy. But very soon you realize that 'Woolie Bullie' is actually merely one riff repeated over and over, with an unpleasant compressed effect on it, and with Thomas mumbling his pessimistic monolog about the fates of America where "Culture is a weapon that's used against us/Nah, culture is a swampland of superstition, ignorance & abuse"; the only distraction comes with the minimalistic pseudo-organ pseudo-solo in the middle which is kinda ominous. That said, it is still louder and more powerful than most of what comes in its wake.

My main complaint is how mercilessly the album is compressed. It's just a rumble-mumble of sonic muck. Nothing is louder or quieter than anything else. Nothing sticks out. The muck just goes on and on and on. They may have wild distortion in the background, but it is in the background - check out how 'Silent Spring' goes, for instance. Unless you turn the volume up really really high, you won't hear anything that goes on in there, and even after you do, you won't be impressed. Granted, that's hardly the only problem - if after six listens, there's not a single song that made any kind of impression on me, there must be something worse than production problems concealed in here. I don't fall for this atmosphere either: Pere Ubu are no Cocteau Twins when it comes to building an impressive monument out of a whole bunch of sonic layers.

Right at the end comes 'Wheelhouse', and while it's not a great rocker by any means, it's at least a major improvement on everything else. A classy double-tracked bluesy riff, a rhythm that at least seems to be a rhythm, not a "crawling pattern", and, indeed, David Thomas' trademark falsetto, as well as an actual crescendo in the climactic ending. Note - all the track listings list this as the last inclusion, but it is actually followed by a few minutes of silence and then several more untitled numbers, including a very long and spooky funky jam that beats the shit of most of the actual muck on the record. I don't know anything about this jam, neither its name nor why it wasn't credited nor why doesn't anybody ever mention it, but it managed to impress me all the same. Cool bass and guitar lines and all, even if it's arguably the most "mainstream" thing on the whole album. Ah well.

Why this receives an 8 and not a 5 or 4: a) the first and last song; b) the hidden jam; c) the inclusion of a couple lighter "acoustic ballads" like 'Highwaterville' which don't make the listening process nearly as painful as it might have been; d) good lyrics throughout, like "the bars are open the night is calling good times are rolling and it's summer in the streets". Wait, no, that's not what I wanted to quote. I, of course, wanted to quote: "Like Muddy Waters to a recalcitrant guitar player he pins to the wall". In my personal experience, this is the first time the word "recalcitrant" has ever been used in the context of a rock song, and that just may be a plus.


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