'St Arkansas' by Pere Ubu
by Ian Simmons
[ cdreviews ]
I suppose Pere Ubu are the American Fall. Unusually long-lived post-punk survivors, animated by the vision of a single central eccentric character using a changing cast of sidemen and still cranking out interesting music almost 20 years after most of their contemporaries fell silent or became dull and embarrassing. Mind you, I doubt you would find Mark E Smith appearing in a touring musical, even an extremely strange one, as David Thomas is in 'Shock Headed Peter'. Pere Ubu, too, are more restrained in their output, while the Fall have produced it must be something like 40 albums, this is Ubu's 18th.
Any consideration of Pere Ubu is inevitably coloured by the shadow of their classic first album, 'The Modern Dance', which was key in showing the way music could go after the purgative blast of punk. While this album does not have anything like the sheer heft that 'Modern Dance' did, it is closer in many ways to the feel and intent of that record than much of their other studio output. The albums immediately following that first triumph headed off into increasingly fragmented quasi-Beefheart territory and involved close collaboration with Red Krayola's Mayo Thompson, while those that have followed the bands collapse and late 80's reunion have tended to take the other tack and follow a more tuneful, lightweight vein. This, however, recombines the two to considerable effect.
The rangy, garage band sound of the group play off Thomas' story-telling skills to great effect here, giving the album a confidence not seen in years. There is a restless, wide open spaces feel to the songs, all loosely connected to the very American ideal of the endless road. It opens with the panicked rush of "The Fevered Dream of Hernando De Soto" but slows immediately with the itchy somnambulism of "Slow Walking Daddy" to a pace which is maintained through most of the rest of the album. Every track has an impressive level of coherence and self-assurance indicating a new level of maturity for the band, now in its most stable and long-lived line up, together since 1995. This culminates in the final 9 minute epic, "Dark" which is, in a way, a traditional paean to AM radio and the American dream, but shot through with such pathos it becomes something else entirely. Easily one of their best tracks since 'Modern Dance', it shows a band at the height of its powers. One thing alone bothers me slightly: the production is very odd, despite being done by long-time Ubu associate Paul Hermann. It does the band no favours - absolutely everything seems a long way back in the mix, if that is possible, with the result that the sound is curiously anaemic. It would certainly have benefited from beefing up, but to be honest, this is a minor quibble - the album is welcome proof that Pere Ubu are still a force to be reckoned with.