Maxima Moralis- Relections from a Healing Mind
Cleveland, Independent Music, and the 1970s
Part IV: Pere Ubu
by Michael Baker
In Memory of
Master of Beautiful Musical Expression
12/30/1942 Akron, Ohio
IV. Pere Ubu: Christ's Agony, Cabarets, and Scary Movies
What a big world
But a world to be drowned in
It's just a joke man!
for that's the way of the west
Oh it's a joke!
It's a joke
It's a JOKE
That's a joke?
Pere Ubu, "Humor Me"
Pere Ubu burst into our startled psyches like angry white wolves, seeking little succor or love, marauders ill-equipped for delay or defeat. Their music was hearty and hollow, murderous and therapeutic, baleful and ecstatic, mollifying and cantankerous, and, man, could you dance in between those polarizing antipodes Boogie Dementia. Pere Ubu self-proclaimed "avant-garage" clearly and intentionally, with the force of a wrecking ball, denounced and razed the Raspberries' European, closed world of pop structuring, deflating the mystique of the Lead Singer fronting a band seeking fame or fortune. On their handful of early singles, starring the twin guitar ramblings of Peter Laughner and the soon-to-be founder of the No Wave movement, Tim Wright, Pere Ubu declared war on the compact, commercial, uncorrupted world of the Raspberries. The four important early songs, recorded in late '75 and early '76, were "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "Heart of Darkness," the masterpiece "Final Solution," and "Cloud 149." Each featured a disemboweled song structure.
As with Berg's 1922 High Modernist opera, Wozzeck, where the singing contrasts Wagnerian excess with the lieder style of simple and intense emotion, lead singer David Thomas's vocals careen out of control, using a collage technique that includes atonal shouting, whispering, warbling, screaming, laughing, and quizzical nattering. These early songs are blueprints for the first three Pere Ubu albums, The Modern Dance, Dub Housing, and New Picnic Time, albums that changed music history, and remain the finest initial trio of albums by any band not featuring Jimi Hendrix. The density of different sounds and time signatures, the crossed voices of the instruments, the use of technology, the darkness of the vision, the willful neglect of mainstream impulses, the constant melodic elisions, the sustained distancing between pitch classes, the prolonged interruptions of sense, the oblique motion of the bridgeless structures, the contrapuntal bass line, and the furious jazz-like drumming mark these albums of experiment, of achievement and partial disintegration of the subject. The songs believe in tradition, presence, and the outside objective world, it's just that Pere Ubu don't take songs seriously as normative desires: They angrily meet the city, and art, head on.
As with the Raspberries, the place to begin is the voice. Part cacophonous, pained howl, part bombastic spoken word, the singing is like none other in rock. Shades of Howlin' Wolf's vast misery; a Zappa-like playfulness, clipping syllables for comic effect; Beefheart's range and volcanic fury; the disembodied, avant-garde yelping, pleading, and wailing of early Gong and Can; I hear Iggy's prowling; I see a Doberman barking at the mailman; I feel the soulful hurt of a divorcing, agonized Marvin Gaye. There are times when the disembodied voice exits and enters on the same line, exploding back into view with a cackle, a mountebank's arrogance and a carnival barker's impassioned winking. There is no attempt to stay on the frazzled beat; no musical competition to sing along with. David Thomas's voice is out there: naked, deadly, hilarious, informal, operatic, expansive, muted, cut off from its corporeal body. Glowing colors, improvisatory techniques, the move from the objective world to a world of subjective expression, and edgy disruptions are all features of Expressionism, just reaching its polished zenith by 1922; they substantiate Thomas's disavowal of naturalism, realism, and reason. The singing is linked directly to the man: flawed, effusive and secretive, querulous and kindly, at times addicted to the losing ways of the Cleveland Indians and the odd ways of Thomas's feisty, icon-smashing Jehovah's Witness religion. There is a mystical immediacy that the harebrained and the visionary often share, and Thomas is no stranger to this impulse, wallowing hopefully in muck and shards; Art, the voice, self-identification to art, diatribes against convention denunciations and renunciations bring respite from whatever haunts a man enough to shape vocals this shatteringly unquiet, yet filled with wonder. His use of interior accents that play off his rhythm section, and his tendency to disintegrate polyphonic lines midway through give emphatic stress to the tenuous, the suspended, and in this incoherent taking apart of theme or motif Thomas and his inner, synthetic grumblings derogate the achievement of pop songs while fortifying some of the finest ever written. His voice achieves independence. His band achieves immortality.
Part of this immortality, of course, owes to the band, a steady unit on all three of the first albums, equal to the task, collectively and individually, of matching with Thomas's incredible gifts as singer, lyricist, composer, and front-man/showman. These young men, all at the start of their musical careers, had limited exposure in other bands: Thomas came from Rocket From the Tombs, featuring Laughner, and spawning (or spewing) the punk legends the Dead Boys, but the others seem to be learning along the way. Former steelworker Tom Herman played guitar and sang, and he is the most underrated guitarist in rock history not named D Boon or Snakefinger; Allen Ravenstine, now a commercial pilot, played the saxophones, distorted the tapes, banged on the Theremin, and, as with Eno, created through his EML synthesizers, a new music order, using technology to weave fear-inducing ghost stories and jaggedly inaccessible moments of confrontational music supremacy, both provisionally and concretely; the bass player, who now operates a highly successful studio, was extraordinary musician Tony Maimone, whose John Cale-like minimalism and looping strength allowed Ravenstine and Thomas to experiment as much as they did; on drums, my favorite American drummer, Scott Krauss a monster, a hipster, a poetic pummeler smashing out new rhythms; and with croaking yodels stood Thomas himself, the ringleader of the Ubu circus to this day, still a vital figure lo these many years. Pere Ubu is still great and has been since the early 1980s, but that's another, longer story. Here, I shall concentrate on the first three albums, dating from when I used to see them live, with my fake ID thanks Wayne W.! with Bud in hand, ready to launch it at a band that could turn music into walls of white noise, that could turn Cleveland into a dark heaven. Praise the Lord!
Thomas, to his credit, disparages links to artistic movements, rarely mentions influences, and denies that Pere Ubu is anything but an American folk band, but the music on the extraordinary first album is hardly Buffy St. Marie. It is the music of revolution. Pere Ubu took their name from a character in the Alfred Henri Jarry play Ubu Roi, who decides to conqueror Poland for no reason; his vulgar mouth, his parodying of Macbeth, his mocking of form, made him, the pretend king, a favorite of Dadaists twenty years later, around our epochal year, 1922. Dadaists loved theatrical gestures as well as the phony and pointless standing against action, progress, and permanent art, instead championing collages, ironic humor, invectives against critics and the masses, Lesbian sardines, an enema for the Venus de Milo, masks, and transitory moments of creation. And through the slapstick eyes of the Three Stooges, Dadaism influenced Clevelander Ernie Anderson, Friday host of scary (retarded) movies; as Ghoulardi, he playfully assaulted Polacks (in Parma), middle-class sensibilities, rationality, and museum art. The movies themselves featured cheap B-movie effects eerie synthesizers warbling distress signals to exaggeratedly virtuous women camp montage, really bad acting, and monsters who, in retrospect, could not scare a group of lesbian sardines or Brownies.
David Thomas's father was a college professor, his mother an amateur architect, but I'm not sure what that means: educated and alive to art, but, hell, so are many, and we cannot explain the band's quirky skewering of art. But add courage, shamanistic intransigence, a belly full of fire, some riffs from the MC5, some distorted minimalism from the Velvets, a music scene in Cleveland that featured many experimental noise offerings, a spirit of mocking culture and deflating heroes, the Dadaistic spirit of collage, the technology to scare those Brownies, and throw in a dying city, and you have an idea of the band. If you add the sonic explorations of fellow Clevelander Albert Ayler, the free jazz saint, and a little Beefheart by way of Howlin' Wolf, the scariest monster of them all, we're where we should be, at the beginning of the beginning.
In addition to Ubu's noise experiments, there were the sax squealings, disrupted melodic lines, a harshness of vision, the angry hammering of things, and the brazen lyrical embrace of the distaff and addled, as in the first album's funny, surreal, and unsentimental penultimate track.
Here she comes
Why don't you just go home?
I don't know
I guess I'll go home
Down the hall
to the stairs
Down the stairs
to the street
Down the street
to the corner
Round the corner
Nowhere to go
I don't know
I guess I'll just go home
There was a soft side to the Ubu Project, even on the first three albums. Certain songs celebrate their own labyrinths of artistic intricacy and misdirection, mazes built to challenge and to mystify. These monumental artistic (mis)creations are pointless in every positive sense of the word but alive, and exuberant, and mocking. The pattern is never recognizable at first glance: the songs demand strenuous planning (hence Thomas's distaste for Dada art and Punk music). They are gloriously, meticulously executed and also become lines of defense; they trap the foolhardy, the conceited, and na ve. In 20th Century song, intricacy, intimacy, mockery and disdain for the audience are found in Bertold Brecht/Kurt Weill's songs of the city, generated in part by the radical gestures of Brecht himself, proposing alienation, Marxist education, and contempt for governmental control as true goals of his great art. The actors knew they were acting, the message was explicit, and the audience enjoyed the hectoring. On the first album, a mini-suite of three songs near the end "Real World," "Over My Head," and the above-cited "Sentimental Journey" perhaps explain what Thomas means when he considers Pere Ubu a folk band. The (non)sense still permeates, the unusual conflation of desire and apathy remain, and the stammering, awkward reciting/singing hasn't changed, but in these songs, and in many others of their thirty-year career, Pere Ubu create a Dinner Theater intimacy found not in the introspection of singer/songwriters, but in Cabaret performance artists, high and low camp combining to form art songs. These songs ooze reflections about contemporary content, often through the hazy filter of a singer preoccupied with Lost Time; they have a moralizing tendency, a bleakness, a respect for the downtrodden and the ignored, and, as with the extraterrestrials of those monster movies, often veer from lunacy to lucidity, invoking curious ethics, suggestive of perversions of "normal" desires. Weill and Brecht came of age in the exhausted 1920s, as did the first great horror movies; perhaps the best, "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," is subject matter of a great Ubu romp. This roarin' decade, after the carnage of the War, after Freud, had fewer illusions: in the citizens' dread, artists created satiric inversions of the Romantic and Enlightenment models, thorough objectivity, dissection, humor, and revolt. Cabaret songs, often intense, melodramatic, with wayward musical rhythms and odd instrumentation, are, as are Ubu themselves, part acting, part warning to the uninitiated. Cabaret songs, Weill's in particular, embrace a lunatic's point of view to dissect fraud and illusion through stylistic clashes. Freedom is an empty concept. Expressionist movies of the 1920s were similarly warnings to the sane: straight culture, sexually or artistic, was a dead end.
The opening songs on The Modern Dance were warnings as well. Borrowing the model of the Raspberries and their three-minute finitude, Ubu inflicts upon standard dance beats a type of bottom-heavy, throbbing, mechanical distortion, one with a furious melodic pattern, but one more herky-jerky as well: the Raspberries lived in the world of sleek tenors, levels of trebles blaring, but the Ubuians sank into basso profundo, daring you to dance on a dance floor covered with razors and sweat and corpses of Raspberries' fans. But shit, goddamn, in or out of your strait-jackets, this music makes your ass shake, your neck tremble: welcome to the Funkadelics as cerebral satanists. The first four songs that somersault apoplectically from Ubu's debut constitute the accumulation of numberless Jehovahs and their baleful arguments, as well as their confessions to crimes that have not been committed yet. The dawn is far away; the singer's leaping voice has the swagger and paranoia of a Medici artisan, cowering in Lorenzo's foyer; the bassist and drummer have shoes full of tiny pebbles. The ruin is nearing accomplishment, but the synthesizer is verbatim with the Book of Dead: we are insinuated into this world of familiarity by the common nouns, but our recognitions are shocked by the newness, the unforgiving, inexorable pain and humiliation of the singer and his pathetic disdain for us, his last hope.
At night I can see the stars on fire
I can see the world in flames
And it's all because of you
or your thousand other names
Under the door there's an eye on the place
He watches for the shadows race
Watch real close
Look real fast
He's in touch
It'll never last
Cuz our poor boy
believes in chance
he'll never get the modern dance
"The Modern Dance"
My baby says
We can live in the empty spaces of this life
My baby says
In the desert sands
our hearts are brighter than the sun
My baby says
When the devil comes we'll shoot him with a gun
My baby says
My baby says, And if he shows his face
I ride a street wave right by her side
and I can hear the city city comin round
The things I say hit the air and seem to fall apart
and I can see the faces faces fallin down
And then I'm
I get a picture of what it'll be like
I turn the channel round to Channel 43
I see electricity jump and spark
I see electricity uh real and stark
And then I'm
These songs are the last vestiges of modernistic art in rock: although more avant-garde than their forebears Eliot, Joyce, Berg, and Gropius, in that the songs intentionally and parodically question some of the tenets of modernism, and in that their difficult nature presupposes an elitist community that claims anti-art for ant-art's sake, and in that they make full revelatory use, comically, of industry and technology, they are also directly linked to the principles of 1922. They use, and I'm using these songs microcosmically for the first three albums, fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives, floating narrators, self-reflexive technology of minimalism, as opposed to steady gaze of embellished Romanticism; they deny fixed positions to knowledge, truth, or sequential place and time. They reject High Art while creating it, with dark assemblages of sound and notes and yelps, forming fabrics precarious and steely; they blur categories and genres: Pop Cult, playfulness, apolitical gestures, urbanism, and structure, as in Gropius's functionalism as art, or Freud's subjective randomness. Someone described the music of Schoenberg an essential member of the earlier posse as if the ink on Wagner's scores was smeared, and so it is here. This is tonality at the crisis point: hostile, subdivided and free floating. And the introverted and outrageous songs rock hard, like warehouses full of explosives.
In 1922 the century's greatest playwright, Brecht, published his first play, and the songs on Pere Ubu's first album contain his mixing of alienation with poetry, his politicized disdain for the ruling class, his permanent exploration of experimentation and different mediums, his embrace of the technological. The breathtaking opener, "Non-Alignment Pact," has a tightness of construction, with the voices of the guitar and synth emerging from the swell of sound; it is an ideal balance between languid sexuality and firestorm warnings. The distinct divisions of these structures as in most of their early songs provide grand entrances for the full-throated Thomas to parade his spacious tales on the objective world, but soon the songs turn on themselves, either through trap doors of musical logic, narrow corridors of frenetic guitar playing that never seems to achieve tensional resolution, or through collapsing codas. These are not merely songs of darkness, or of the nervous city unable to fall to sleep; these are songs, rather, of entire communities suffering from sleeplessness, and only death and incantatory irrationality give solace to these dream-starved landscapes. "Nonalignment Pact" is one of the greatest opening tracks in history. Gothic, atmospheric, throbbing, doubling back on itself, seeking the site of its origin, only to have the wild guitar strumming merge incestuously with the heartbeat bass, the beat of a fetus soon to be born with two heads, one for you, and one that I'll eat here. After you listen to it for the third time in a row, put on your headphones, turn up the bass and volume, and really listen to it. Next time those weirdos in ugly ties knock on your door, you'll give them money: they call it the Watchtower for a reason, you isolated, nay-saying fucker-fucks.
The next song is even better: it is the anti-apotheosis of Mahler's "Nature in its totality may ring and resound." The tension is unbearable; the groove is derived from Bruckner's Resurrection symphony. It has a churchy call and response, cranky vocalese, followed by a brief break for the audience to run towards the exits, their hearts and ears on fire. The drumming is borrowed from Gene Krupa, the voice is Lassie, saying little Timmy is still in the well. Cocktails later, then the asylum inmates are medicated, and Allen Ravenstine decides to crunch things up Eno-style, but angrier and scarier. I think I'll cancel my American Airlines trip, Mr. Travel Agent, if you don't mind. The next song, "Laughing," is the least funny song ever recorded. Ravenstine by now is flying on the sax without a license; drummer Krauss actually keeps time with the vertical solo-ings as Tom Herman teaches Tom Verlaine how to maintain meaning. Thomas yells at me, you, and everyone: With the hellhound on my trail, and with my Moe Howard squawk, I think I'll invent spoken word poetry while I am at this.
"Street Waves," their greatest rocker, has the most powerful and most propulsive break this side of "I Heard Her Call My Name," a song it nearly matches in intensity and genius. This is not punk music: the studio is actually used for effective sonics, and the structure of the music asserts strands of traditional means of organization. The songs are condemned partially by gravity, partially by geometry; they set up examples of immediacy and spontaneity, but cover traces of joy with death marches and obscene nightmares. The argument in these songs, and elsewhere on this album, is to extend the songs' Dionysian roots with an Apollonian severity of affected boredom with culture. By doing these things unnervingly successfully, these songs call into question the very nature of pop music.
Eight months after recording The Modern Dance, Pere Ubu went back into the abyss pugnacious, belligerent, unmindful of album sales, and surer of themselves, to record the beautiful, ear-shattering Dub Housing, a continuation, since it was the summer of 1978, of the Punk-ish brutality and vocal experimentation of Modern Dance, which separated them from every other band in the world, including other avant-gardes like Henry Cow/Slapp Happy and Can, who operated with slanted adherence to traditional song structure. Ravenstine's creativity with the synthesizer mounted; earlier he had supplemented the music with dismal tones of paranoia, Roswellian conspiracies, and dumb-shit movies with plastic robots. On Dub Housing, he is keener, buzzing, creating tension simply through a give and take of consonance and dissonance. The songs aren't the atom bombs of the first album; rather, they loop in and out of aural airspace, cloud-covered one minute, sonorously pellucid the next. There's creeping anarchism and tribalism, looking forward to the next album. Maimone's bass playing seems positively anchored in rational foregrounding: for him, and his drummer Krauss, the impressionism of the music is turned into a corporeal and substantial presence.
The voice and the guitar point toward a cutting off from the subject, the singer and his words, and the song's supposed entry points of melody, the guitar. Unlike the first album, there are more ornaments and decoration, ghastly and shadowy, but embellishments nonetheless; the lyrics investigate the iconography of movies, of urban life, but with confrontation, with the elevation of theatrics over verisimilitude. Despite guitarist Herman's oft-enforced isolation, he emerges combinatorially as an echoing device, as contrarian dialectic for Thomas's meanderings. His musical lines are jagged and sinuous, never parodying, unimposing, but indivisible from the melody by the end of the song. These are not so much songs as scaffolding, grids and layers, and punishments. They lack monumentality but, through elemental accumulation, pack a wallop as they become a series of vertiginous walkways and descending escalators, in and out of danger: they are for strolling around the shoreline, that which separates dirty, earthly grime and watery, baptismal hope.
The cheeriest aspect here is David Thomas himself. He stretches his voice, with all its power, variety, and mutability, and in that unprecedented spastic elasticity, he kinetically embraces the quotidian elements of talking intimately to his fellow oddballs with a demagogue's sustain. These trumpet blasts of vocalization are commensurate with art's ability to look beyond the functional relations, communication and make them temporarily obsolete. During the late 1970s, Cleveland, and American Pop Music, possessed neither the confidence nor the cultural vision to justify any form of large-scale art work. Hence Pere Ubu's limitless and miniaturized variabilities. Their fixation on structural newness was a futile compensation for significance, however, in that it obscured values with meaning. There has always been a divide in 20th Century Art, between pragmatic renderings of a meaningful ethos with the day-to-day ability to see what is right in front of you. Pere Ubu's anti-bourgeois ideology, creeping on Dub Housing, full blown by the next album, is more a logic of disintegration, and in this system, the affirmation of nostalgia and empathy, and the cause of effects are replaced with very closed worlds of static incoherence. Which is not to say that the music pales, or is boring: Pere Ubu is simply saying that music and imagination is insecure, elusive, and indeterminate. In fact, because of the burden from the loss of energy and meaning the music achieves multiaccentuality, brash and cocksure, reveling in its differing dialects and limitless vocabularies. But because society is opaque and violent, and because Pere Ubu was moving into music for music's sake, the question of linking political comportment is never raised, less answered. Pere Ubu starts to turn Modernism on its ear: Reasoning starts from the bottom up; parts remain just parts; there is universal pessimism; and artistic referentially becomes self-referentially.
A mere nine months after the angry, destabilizing, apocalyptic rejections of content and form in Dub Housing, the boys, fresh from destroying Romantic pop songs and disco commercialism, respectively, on their first two albums, created New Picnic Time. This time, the enemy was Punk, especially British Punk, and their punks. A quick look at two great songs that appear to be links between the second and third album will reveal, actually, an accelerated loss of faith in the authentic, replaced by the hyper-real. What were earnest and serious disruptions on the first two albums have become complete subversions, almost pastiche. What saves, the Ubu-ites from solipsism, of course, is the continued and evolving musical excellence and originality of vision: there has never a record that sounds remotely like New Picnic Time, with its the arch, pluralistic disunities of chance, surface antitheses, and intentional misreads of melody. The first is the title track from Dub Housing:
Have you heard about this house?
Inside, a thousand voices talk
and that talk echoes around and around
The windows reverberate
The walls have ears
A thousand saxophone voices talk
You should hear how we syllogize
You should hear
about how Babel fell and still echoes away,
how we idolize,
in the dark,
in the heart
All I hear is...
Hear the sound of the jibberty jungle
In the dark, a thousand insect voices chitter-chatter
The sun goes up,
I seek sleep,
This song, as with its contemporaries, calls into question the appropriateness of jokes, using paranoid evocations, interior bad weather and its relationship to, simultaneously, the Modernist impulse and the troubled unconscious. What may seem like grey matter is actually adamantine; where structures may seem obviated or mocked they are actually a new architectural form, exposing structural supports: sharp, clean lines of meaning and habitation, ramps and stairways that connect to work places and clean-swept rooms. They embrace technology. They are idealistic, radical, and logical. In context of most American music at the time, each unit seems to start over and be part of a unified vision. In other words, if the second album mutes the Stooges/Velvets synthesis as profound axis of meaning, then buries that meaning in the deep structure of the silences, it is also potent boom that "fixes" the first album's tendencies toward density and reliance upon predecessors. In fact, if the first album established that Pere Ubu is part of a rock tradition and that tradition can complemented, then the second album investigates the half of that equation: we are delving into aesthetics that reduce the prejudiced forms of ornamentation for a swifter, bolder music, a music that spins around itself, weighing, in each song, an alternative methodology. Instead of adding to, or increasing, tradition, Pere Ubu is making a new one. And it is pure, without connections to industrial solutions. Each song seems to categorically change through variation, not through strategy, the reorganized art. But seems at first to be mere ingenuity and chance taking is, through the arc of the three albums, a movement toward integrity of design.
These are new ways of looking at time; with the acceptance of the machine, and the synthesis between expressionist pain and emotional conflict with the arid use of quotidian technological reality Pere Ubu shifts the spaces of the song around, abruptly changes the time signature, and abridges the chorus, leaving the listener to aggressively piece the structure together. Minimum time and maximum space cubist, almost the songs radiate omni-directionally, emanating from fixed planes of Thomas's careening, stylized vocals.
The Modern Dance addresses the problems of songs, and spatial configuration, tentatively embracing machines as purposeful additives, and ignoring the sagas of local political agendas. Dub Housing is the artistic self expression of a mature standardization. This eliminated individual concern in favor of a single representative style: the music may be jarring, eccentric, paranoid, electric, and apathetic over relational communication, but by segregating the functions of the music a truly Modernist tenet Pere Ubu first explored form, then allowed the form to follow function, and by the difficult, arty, verbose, dissonant, anti-commercial New Picnic Time, established themselves as the interpreters of a new art. Paradoxically, in the most diffuse and most abstract of settings, Pere Ubu, through risk-taking, experimentation, and improvisation geared up for randomness, invented their surest album, if you allow that this certitude is that of a soiled funhouse mirror. The second song is emblematic of New Picnic Time's artsy doodling, its uncompromising lack of differentiation between commerce and construction; the songs explore existential corners most of us have never even dreamt about. The second album placed meaning in the structure, the frame, the components, but here, meaning is from the outside, the skin of the songs. Like painter Winslow Homer's mid-career switch from oils to watercolors to extend his hues, expanding his light/dark interplay, so too Pere Ubu switched from rigid dark colorations of the first two albums to embrace a more kinetic, improvisatory nature to their art. "49 Guitars and One Girl" is detached, hateful of pragmatism; it wallows haply in its technocratic ambiguity of desire-less didactics.
It was the sound he heard
It was a funny thing to feel
It was the sound he heard
It was a funny, funny thing to feel
Bubbles of air
Sinking down fast...
(I must have been looney)
It was the sound he heard
What a funny thing to feel!
It was the sound he heard
What a funny, funny thing to feel!
All for love of you...
(I must have been looney)
It was the sound he heard
What a funny thing to feel!
He had to talk about,
He had to talk about that funny thing
Don't! Don't panic
Here it comes
Water is the sound he heard
Water is the sound
"49 Guitars and One Girl"
Music, in this view, can (and should) be nothing more than elegant engineering, imperatives that regulate and punish, morphing into moments of lonesome nonsense. What was raw, rugged, and rough, musically, on the first album, and what was avant-garde couched in the vernacular of hip-ness, communally disinterested, and almost preaching its own aesthetics on the second becomes a new animal: wild, un-caged, with the shocked trainer in the hospital, licking his wounds. New Picnic Time's subdivisions make up a mighty whole, ignoring the discomforts and inconveniences of fugal interweaving. They are stark and noisy, celebratory and rancorous, economic and foolishly baroque. There is also a widespread use of the studio: sound effects, air whooshing through the songs, and of course Ravenstine's evolving mastery. If the voices on the second album recall the eerie, and parodic, group menacing of the insurgents in The Wizard of Oz, and the hectoring of poor lost Dorothy, the voices here resemble the Three Stooges: unfit for decent society, the voices here plead, slap, whine, and pretend to be someone and something else. At times this music intricately Byzantine, bizarrely intrepid seems as if authored by Marat or Sade: revolutionary, critical, egomaniacal, and searching. They never really found the truth either, and once this quintet splintered, most notably Herman being replaced by Mayo Thompson, which started twenty-five years of firings and hirings and re-hirings, twenty-five years of pop beauty, of unwelcome silencing, truth and stability were as impossible to attain as they are philosophically challenged here on New Picnic Time, an album that seemed to denigrate the purposeful monochromatic ideologies of prevailing punkers and yet, ironically, set that movement into even greater flourish. By challenging the precepts of Western rock, as much as Berg did for opera or Cage for classical, Pere Ubu rationally and vindictively lost organic history. They eroded sense from our musical vocabularies, and replaced it with paranoid autonomy. Laughing, and laughingly, Pere Ubu became, on their third album, the last of their three masterpieces, kings of infinite space and lords of the moment. Hallelujah, and pass the damn chicken.
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