Friday, September 19, 2008

Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance

Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance

Named after a French proto-surrealist play, and coming off about as artsy and pretentious as that would imply, Pere Ubu was first formed in 1975 in Cleveland, Ohio. Combining art-punk sensibilities with a delightfully absurdist take on song-writing, the band created a dense and murky form of post-punk that took cues from the garage rock of the 60’s and bordered heavily on avant-garde. On the subject of Ubu, it was once written:

“Pere Ubu will be looked back on as the most important group to have come out of America in the last decade and a half. Either that or they will be entirely forgotten”

And whether you’ve heard of them or not, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise how that one turned out. But it’s a shame really, because this attitude was very much indicative of how the band was viewed. Either you love them or disregard them as too weird, too out there, or too subversive to remain consistently listenable. While these are legitimate complaints, it rarely overshadows the insane greatness that the band was often capable of conjuring. Between David Thomas’ warbled cries, the off-key dancing of the guitar and bass, and synth-wizard Allen Ravenstine’s incredible infusion of any number of background noises, Pere Ubu channeled the bizarre to create the phenomenal. On their first album, The Modern Dance, they fully showcased this peculiar concoction, creating an influential and seminal work in the process.

Although they would eventually move into more New Wave territory, eventually landing on the other side of the pop music spectrum, make no mistake about it – The Modern Dance is very much a rock record, albeit a very arty one. The garage rock influence shines through even the densest of distortion, as the opening guitar line on “Street Waves” would certainly attest to. But it is where Pere Ubu departs from their predecessors that they become interesting. A variety of multicultural influences abound, as the band veers between any number of styles, from areas as diverse and musically different as Middle-Eastern and rockabilly. Part of this is in the tuning of the guitar; it holds very little strength here, even being overshadowed by the bass at times, much less the calamity of noise contributed by Ravenstine. As such, it sounds less like the usual Western styles of the electric or acoustic guitar, and sort of like a more twang-y version of the sitar at times (emphasis on “at times”).

Atmosphere is a big part of the Pere Ubu sound, and The Modern Dance exemplifies this through the synthetic arrangements of Allen Ravenstine. Ravenstine’s part comes in through his creation of setting that underlies the rest of the music, be it through the occasional waves of triumphant applause in “Chinese Radiation”, the industrial rhythmic clanging of “Real World”, or the ominous, air raid siren-lite sounds of “Over My Head”. His influence on this record isn’t as great as it would come to be on future releases, but it is still a big part in formulating Pere Ubu’s unique musical direction. The synths on this album work to create a very distinct atmosphere in a very different way than they would later be used, mainly through the channeling of background noises and atmospheric musical cues, rather than the dance-y synth arrangements that would later come to personify New Wave.

However, this is in many ways David Thomas’ band, as the founder and only constant member throughout Pere Ubu’s career, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend some time focusing on his odd, almost surreal caterwauling. Imagine an especially noisy hawk. Now, imagine that that hawk is dying, possibly due to internal bleeding, and just won’t shut up (god, this is a really bad metaphor). That’s kind of what David Thomas sounds like, a dying hawk, squealing and squawking incessantly in a high yet somber pitch as it slowly dies. Or maybe a drunken homeless man on the street, muttering to himself about whatever he pleases, and occasionally raising his voice in delightful inebriated glory. Whatever he sounds like, Thomas’ vocals are easily the most noticeable and recognizable thing about Pere Ubu, and they work to fit the eccentricities of the music seamlessly.

With The Modern Dance, Pere Ubu created an underground classic, an experimental slice of ‘avant-garage’ (Thomas’ term to placate music critics looking for a trendy expression to use in their reviews) that doesn’t disappoint. Few bands can create the same blend of abstract weirdness, much less pair it with any number of interesting musical ideas. Absurd, surreal, and only a tad disjointed, The Modern Dance stands as another important step in the ultimate merger of music and art. To this date, it remains important in its influence, even if not nearly as many people remember it as they should.

The Modern Dance

No comments: