Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
By the time this record was released – on Chrysalis, no less! The very fact that it and Dub Housing ended up (like the first Suicide album, absolutely unplayed) in my college radio station’s library is something I’ll always attribute to overzealous if-you-like-Blondie-then-you’ll-love... marketing – those who were familiar with Pere Ubu knew them chiefly as noisemakers, maybe even pranksters. So perhaps it was in the interests of out-pranking its presumably rather hostile audience (one can imagine early Ubu gigs being as deserved of the descriptive title the Fall chose for Live at the Witch Trials; their music wasn’t sexy or fast or cool, they weren’t very good dressers, and why was that fat guy given center stage to caterwaul anyway?) that the band decided to open The Modern Dance with a full thirty seconds of ear-piercing noise.
Thankfully, not only for us but for them – I can see some lazy critics (presumably the offspring of those who derided William Gaddis’ The Recognitions as simply too long, too difficult to read, or maybe just bitter that they bought Metal Machine Music on Lester Bangs’ recommendation) ripping their stylus from the record to compose a snarky, self-congratulatory review on the spot, and we never know who reads critics’ reviews in the interest of informing their record purchases, do we? – this noise gives way to the glorious, acid-fried “Johnny B. Goode” guitar shards that open “Non-Alignment Pact,” a barrelling pop song that contains so much energy, so many bizarre drop-outs into, yes, more caustic noise, followed by returns to down-and-dirty riffing, so much of David Thomas’ comically dysphoric wailing (listen as he recites the names of girls who’ve wronged him, girls he’s ran away with, girls who’ve probably recoiled at the sight of him and whose names he’s assiduously scribbled down from the name tags they wear when waitressing) as to prove downright irresistible to even the most hardened fuck-all-that-art-wank musical traditionalist. This shit smokes, I mean to say.
So when the band follows it up with the nervously propulsive, organ-laced title track – sporadically interrupted by distant sandblasts of synthesizer noise, street traffic, and home-taped, staticy bursts of All in the Family laugh track – we understand that they’re on the right track; hectic, noisy, but never losing its sense of forward motion, it serves as a perfect hybrid of Ubu’s most unpretentious and pretentious tendencies. Following it up, though, with the peculiar, stuttering, clarinet-skronk of “Laughing” (curious that one of the band’s most inspiring, humanistic songs, one that takes the form of a missive from one lover to another, sounds so ungainly) seems another odd, possibly hostile move from a band that one almost wants to see watering down its sound slightly in hopes of gaining a legion of new fans. (I know I’m sad that, even though Devo, Beefheart, and Sun Ra were given Saturday Night Live performances during its more musically adventurous periods, that the often tragicomic antics of Thomas et al. were never given the spotlight to perform. Maybe I possess some ulterior motive in wishing this, though; I could just want to imagine more impressionable teenagers’ heads getting blown wide open by some of the weirdest music to be released on a major label [cf. Nirvana’s recommendation that Reprise sign the Boredoms] for what I think was a three-album deal).
“Street Waves,” issued on the band’s third single, brings the spasms of rock with a steady, precise, and (in my book) severely underrated performance from the rhythm section; the hush that takes place midway through the song – which, of course, makes way for more stunning curtains of synth ambience – before everything kicks in again is a clear example of the fact that the band possessed what many have been tempted to immediately say they lack. I’m talking, of course, of restraint and polish, which always goes on beneath Thomas’ schizoid, wild-man vocalizing. “Chinese Radiation” and the bluesy “Over My Head” plead a further case for the band’s ability to fully realize a miniature audio drama when reining in their more chaotic tendencies. The former, of couse, still contains a bizarre, uptempo segment containing the strangely moving yet ridiculous utopian proclamations of Thomas – who I can only guess is mocking the ideological mindset of leftover Mao-chic as he explains its power to the bewildered individual – amid some sampled uproars of crowd noise (which I can’t help but smile imagining it to be taken from a live Chicago triple album), but it contains a crestfallen, somber piano segue just the same. It, too, is a love story, of sorts.
That certainly couldn’t be said of the Laughner-written (and thus relatively straightforward) “Life Stinks,” a punky, abrasive, yet complex mixture of nimble drums, twisting guitar, and clarinet exhortations. Thomas (or rather the by-then-expelled, by-then-deceased Laughner) explains that he’s seeing pink, he needs a drink, and he likes the Kinks. Check, check, check. Obviously, this one isn’t hard to relate to.
By the time we reach the album’s penultimate track, the six-minute “Sentimental Journey,” a renunciation of what one imagines to be an existence more squalid than most – Thomas, amid breaking glass, a dejected carnival of sound effects, and a choppy, brooding bassline, enumerates the items in his tiny apartment – we seem to understand the band’s decidedly odd brand of gallows humor. In the reggae-tinged “Humor Me,” Thomas proclaims, “It’s just a joke!” along with some curt laughter, but is he trying to provide a summation of his hard-to-get comedic sensibility, what he imagines his whole existence to be, neither, or both? This is not the sort of music that lends itself well to straightforward interpretation; it does not reveal its secrets at once; even when it seems to do so, it nevertheless fails to provide the listener with no easy answers; it makes the listener want to keep on listening, even if he or she feels they are the only one.
By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01