Friday, November 24, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: UBU VOODOO

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 24, 2006


Thirty years after the birth of Pere Ubu — a scene I imagine as a grainy 8 mm film of mad scientists holed up in a secret, makeshift laboratory in some abandoned warehouse in Cleveland, shooting electrical bolts into a huge, discolored dinosaur egg — the band still sounds as crazy, dangerous, and, yes, fresh as ever.

To be sure, Ubu ’06 has only one of its original members: frontman David Thomas. But just like the Ubu of yore, on the new album Why I Hate Women, Thomas and his cohorts explore musical frontiers nobody else ever reached, shores to which no other band even aspired to sail.

Yes, they’re experimental, avant-garde, and artsy — if your idea of art includes cheapo ’50s and ’60s sci-fi flicks. (And in fact, another recent Ubu project was to supply a new soundtrack to the old Roger Corman popcorn-muncher X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes.)

There’s a film noir — avant noir? — feel to some of the songs. Thomas describes Why I Hate Women as “my idea of the Jim Thompson novel he never wrote.” For instance, “Stolen Cadillac” starts out, “I gotta get out of this place else I swear my head will crack/What will you do for me?/Johnny Two-Toes says to Betty Groove.”

Pere Ubu is proudly fartsy as well as artsy. That is, they not only create fascinating sound — they rock!

“Caroleen,” for instance, is a hard-pounding kick in the teeth with a steady, manic, guitar hook over near-metallic drumming (and of course, trademark Ubu syntho-squeals and Thomas’ wild warbling.)

Likewise, the opening track, “Two Girls (One Bar),” sounds like the buildup to an explosion. “In this bar, the beer don’t work on me,” Thomas sings, as if he’s just begun a terrible search for something that will work on him.

Some of the songs here are thick and sinisterly atmospheric — “Stolen Cadillac” is one. “Blue Velvet” is another.

(One amusing little Ubu trick I love is how they sometimes employ the titles of old rock and pop songs for their weird sonic excursions. In the past there have been PU songs called “Down By The River” and “Cry, Cry, Cry.” You’ll see names like “Blue Velvet,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” and “Mona” here, but you’re not going to hear covers of Bo Diddley, The Angels, or Bobby Vinton. A few years ago Thomas pulled a surprise when the song “Surfer Girl,” turned out to be a cover version of the Beach Boys song — albeit a very strange version.)

But even at their most incomprehensible, Thomas and the Ubus don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. Check the lyrics to “Caroleen”: “And in the cool hours of the nite/she kisses me and it rips my head off/You know her name, rhymes with gasoline/Her perfume, I think it’s turpenteen.”

Or how about “Mona” (about a gal from Arizona), which has the refrain, “Mona loves Popeye/Mona loves Popeye.”

The album ends with “Texas Overture,” on which Thomas seems to be plugging and reciting the menus from various barbecue joints.

“Salt Lick in Driftwood is no beer family style,” Thomas says, referring to one of my favorite BBQ restaurants. “3 meat platter bowl of beans slaw tata salad/Onions pickles two slices white bread Texas style/Order in order out order online/Order by mail fax toll free anytime. ... Bottomless refills more meat more beans whole lotta slaw please.” Think of this as a New-Wave/post-punk/proto-rap/art-rock version of Guy Clark’s “Texas Cookin’”, with a swampy guitar riff that sounds like a mutant cousin of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

For those who love these strange sounds and crazed visions, Why I Hate Women is nearly as satisfying to the ears as a meal at The Salt Lick is to the belly.

Don’t call him “Dave”
The album is available at Smogveil Records. And any Ubu cultist or prospective fan will want to see Pere Ubu's own site and check out the “protocols” section, in which Pere Ubu policies on performances, press, bootlegs, and nearly any other aspect of their operation is laid out for the world to see.

My favorite is the in-store appearance policy: “Immediately on arrival introduce Mr. Thomas to as many people as possible, pointing out interesting facts & aiding the flow of conversation. Do not let Mr. Thomas stand around like a lemon. ... As soon as possible Mr. Thomas must be guided to a chair from which he may play his accordion & dominate the immediate space in an absolutist manner. ... Mr. Thomas should not be referred to as “Dave” or touched in an overly familiar way. His name is ‘David.’”

Also noted
Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain by Sparklehorse. This record, the first Sparklehorse album in five years, is surprisingly accessible — especially after the often grating yet strangely beautiful sonic experimentation with the likes of Tom Waits and PJ Harvey on the last album, It’s a Wonderful Life. I was tempted to call the first song (“Don’t Take My Sunshine Away”) Beatles-ish, but on repeated listening it’s closer to Badfinger-ish. True, the instrumentation starts to head on a discordant trip to Banana Land for a few moments toward the end. But for the most part, this song and most of the others here are sweet, melodic pop.

Slow and sweet at that. Sparklehorse — not so much a band as a stage name for singer Mark Linkous — can actually rock out and does so on a handful of tracks, the best one being “Ghost in the Sky.”

But the shoegazers outnumber the foot-stompers. The album ends with the 10-minute instrumental meditation that is the title song. It sounds kind of like what Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” would have been without guitarist Eddie Hazel.

Belly of a Mountain is very listenable and mainly likable, though ultimately disappointing. I kept longing for more of the wilder side of Sparklehorse. There’s a hint of that in the near-psychedelic final moments of “Knives of Summertime,” where the guitars sound like fighting alley cats. But the fur never really flies.

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