Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Pere Ubu

  • The Modern Dance [Blank, 1978] A-
  • Dub Housing [Chrysalis, 1979] A
  • New Picnic Time [Chrysalis, 1980] A-
  • The Art of Walking [Rough Trade, 1980] B+
  • Ubu Live: Volume 1: 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo [Rough Trade, 1981] B+
  • Song of the Bailing Man [Rough Trade, 1982] B+
  • Terminal Tower: An Archival Collection [Twin/Tone, 1986] A-
  • The Tenement Year [Antone's, 1988] A
  • Cloudland [Fontana, 1989] A-
  • Worlds in Collision [Fontana, 1991] ***
  • Story of My Life [Imago, 1993] *
  • Ray Gun Suitcase [Tim/Kerr, 1995] ***
  • Folly of Youth See Dee Plus [Tim/Kerr, 1996] Dud
  • Pennsylvania [Tim/Kerr, 1998] Dud
  • Apocalypse Now [Thirsty Ear, 1999] A-
  • St Arkansas [SpinArt, 2002] **
  • Why I Hate Women [Smog Veil, 2006] Dud
  • Lady From Shanghai [Fire, 2013] **
  • 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo [Cherry Red, 2017] A-
  • The Long Goodbye [Cherry Red, 2019] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Modern Dance [Blank, 1978]
Ubu's music is nowhere near as willful as it sounds at first. Riffs emerge from the cacophony, David Thomas's shrieking suits the heterodox passion of the lyrics, and the synthesizer noise begins to cohere after a while. So even though there's too much Radio Ethiopia and not enough Redondo Beach, I'll be listening through the failed stuff--the highs are worth it, and the failed stuff ain't bad. A-

Dub Housing [Chrysalis, 1979]
Because I trust the way Ubu's visionary humor and crackpot commitment rocks out and/or hooks in for the sheer pleasure of it, I'm willing to go with their excursions into musique concrete, and on this record they get me somewhere. The death of Peter Laughner may well have deprived America of its greatest punk band, but the subsequent ascendancy of synth wizard Allen Ravenstine has defined a survival-prone community capable of bridging the '60s and the '80s without acting as if the '70s never happened. Imitating randomness by tucking randomlike sounds into deep but tactfully casual structures, joyfully confusing organic and inorganic sounds, they teach us how to live in the industrial shift--imaginatively! A

New Picnic Time [Chrysalis, 1980]
Recitative, animal noises, and industrial waste for the ear threaten their precarious (by definition) art-rock balance. "A Small Dark Cloud" is mostly voice and sound effects, "The Voice of the Sand" mostly whisper and sound effects, "All the Dogs Are Barking" barely more. Then again "Jehovah's Kingdom Comes!" rocks, and "Goodbye" is as quietly hypnotic as it's supposed to be. When David Thomas starts off crowing "It's me again!" he's not really boasting--he's hitting us with the very best he has to offer. A-

The Art of Walking [Rough Trade, 1980]
It's impossible to wish these utopian singers of the industrial pastorale anything but the best. But between the passages of synthesizer buzz and the fond talk of birdies, fishies, and horsies (pace Patti, they do call it "Horses"), you have to figure that neither Red Crayola's Mayo Thompson (in for Tom Herman) nor the one true God (David is now a Jehovah's Witness) is counseling anybody to rock out. Undestructive violence is a hard act to continue. B+

Ubu Live: Volume 1: 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo [Rough Trade, 1981]
Recapping the Hearthan and Blank Records period that a born-again Crocus Behemoth will never look in the eye again, this is a find for fans who missed the early singles and the Datapanik EP (source of four songs, with another previously unreleased and seven more from The Modern Dance). Material and performance are fine, with variant lyrics and new guitar and synthesizer bits mitigating (though not eliminating) the redundancy factor. But most of these recordings were intended for reference only, and that's how they sound--devoid of aural presence. For demo addicts, tape traders, and incorrigible cultists like me. B+

Song of the Bailing Man [Rough Trade, 1982]
In his Jehovah's Witness phase--which could last the rest of his life--David Thomas is just like any other eccentric "progressive." With Mayo Thompson and Anton Fier replacing Ubu's two committed rockers on guitar and drums, the group can't carry him along on populist pulse anymore, which means that although Thomas's compositional ideas may be "original" and "interesting"--and unlike most art-rock, this music deserves both adjectives--how compelling you find the gestalt depends on the power of Thomas's private obsessions. Once again the man outdoes himself--some of these lyrics actually read as poetry. But it's minor poetry for sure--his musings on the ineluctable wonder of the natural order go deeper than, say, Peter Hammill's damn fool doomsaying, but they're long on whimsy and short on tension. As Christian rock goes, it's smart stuff, but as Christian art goes I'll take Graham Greene. B+

Terminal Tower: An Archival Collection [Twin/Tone, 1986]
Side one is the long unavailable Datapanik in the Year Zero EP, itself comprising two indie singles and a compilation cut and as powerful a sequence as side one of Dub Housing nevertheless. Side two collects the kind of oddments that rarely cohere on LP, yet here the outtakes and B sides and stray singles come together as a record of David Thomas's slide or progress from willed optimism to blessed whimsy. In short, this is a gift from God--a third Ubu album from the former Crocus Behemoth's pre-God period. A-

The Tenement Year [Antone's, 1988]
Yes, this is Ubu--four of the seven players were on Dub Housing. But before Scott Krauss was brought in--can't expect much backbeat with Chris Cutler hogging the drums--it was also the most recent edition of David Thomas's Pedestrians/Wooden Birds making a rock move. So what's astonishing isn't just the high spirits and good faith, both rare enough on reunions, but the singleness of purpose. It's not as if Thomas's crotchety nature-boy mysticism has been blown away--one of these songs is an attack on zoos. But the momentum of the backbeat and the electric clamor of the whole move straighten him out and toughen him up, while at the same time his loving, surrealistic sarcasm dominates the music, with Allen Ravenstine reaching untold heights of kooky reintegration. This record proves not only that good-hearted eccentrics can live in the world, but that they can change it for the better. Every song stays with you, but the one for the ages is "We Have the Technology," which leaves you thinking that we just may and we just may not. Thank you, Scott Krauss. A

Cloudland [Fontana, 1989]
"We'd never been asked to write a pop record before," David Thomas says. "I guess it never occurred to anyone." Thomas was happy to oblige. No private visions of decaying cityscape, just equally obscure (and evocative) love songs, down on their knees to rhyme with please. Produced mostly out of Ubu's old Ohio home, then smoothed down and hooked up in London, their signature avant-garage survives with its stop-and-go effects and unsalable recitative in fine fettle. If you're a fan, the six Stephen Hague-produced or Daniel Miller-remixed cuts will sound misbegotten at first. But if you're really a fan, you'll come to recognize them as the urban pastoral of Thomas's whimsical period adapted for the cheap seats, which deserve the attention. A-

Worlds in Collision [Fontana, 1991]
pure art-rock for art-pop people ("I Hear They Smoke the Barbecue," "Worlds in Collision") ***

Story of My Life [Imago, 1993]
postpunk as likable litterateur, band as predictable support ("Story of My Life," "Kathleen") *

Ray Gun Suitcase [Tim/Kerr, 1995]
still rockin' (again) after all these years ("Down by the River II," "My Friend Is a Stooge for the Media Priests") ***

Folly of Youth See Dee Plus [Tim/Kerr, 1996] Dud

Pennsylvania [Tim/Kerr, 1998] Dud

Apocalypse Now [Thirsty Ear, 1999]
Something has happened to David Thomas since this "special acoustic evening" in 1991, and though I'm tempted to call it art, it's probably just the art world. Thomas has always fiddled with art-rock, but only when he hit the museum circuit in the '90s did his respectable side get the better of him. It's impossible to imagine him endangering an ICA performance piece with "mind-dead rock" like "Non-Alignment Pact" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog"--for one thing, no attendee would think of requesting such a thing. And it's all too difficult to imagine him rocking a 1999 "acoustic evening" with such benign aggression and hang-loose cheer. "Enough fun," he announces grumpily as he cuts Iggy off at 40 seconds--leaving us to discover that "We Have the Technology" is yet to come. A-

St Arkansas [SpinArt, 2002]
there is no joy in Meadville, mighty Ubu has blooped a single to left center--but there wasn't much joy before either ("Slow Walking Daddy," "333") **

Why I Hate Women [Smog Veil, 2006] Dud

Lady From Shanghai [Fire, 2013]
Steals a hook from Anita Ward before resuming his previously announced program of "Smash the Hegemony of Dance/Stand Still" ("Thanks," "Musicians Are Scum") **

20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo [Cherry Red, 2017]
As the nuclear Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight than it's been since 1953, David Thomas and a sizable contingent of old allies hunker down in a launch pad turned fallout shelter and bash out the most songful and physically powerful Pere Ubu album of our fraught century. Of course untoward noises abound along with the urgent tempos. But after the searing two-minute "Red Eye Blues," it ends with three more ruminative tracks, each a love song one way or another. First papa invites her out for a walk. Then a guest vocalist designated Roshi turns out to be female. And then begins the finale, crooned high and grainy: "Hold me close / I feel the time running out / I know you must feel it too." A-

The Long Goodbye [Cherry Red, 2019]
Except for what might well have passed as a farewell album--namely, 2018's 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo--parsing what one of David Thomas's works of art "means" has long been a superfan's game. This double-CD, two versions of the same music with the live-in-France one superior, is relatively engaging/engaged in its mostly recitative way and seems to be inspired by the Raymond Chandler novel, to what end it's just entertaining enough to inspire superfans to ponder: patriotism as pessimism, nirvana as oblivion, feeling blue. It's also his farewell album until he changes his mind. My favorite track is "Fortunate Son," set in a "Waffle House with a view of Walden Pond," where he cries about America and pays the bill of a man who plays "Fortunate Son" and "Layla" on the jukebox--but declines to tell the guy whether he actually likes Eric Clapton. B+

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