Pere Ubu: Lady From Shanghai – Album Review
Pere Ubu are the ultimate American Underground band. If David Lynch had formed a band, then it would sound like Pere Ubu. They emerged from gritty Cleveland in the mid-seventies and their first two albums – The Modern Dance and Dub Housing – are classics of the genre that have influenced a plethora of bands (I’ve always felt Talking Heads were a watered down Pere Ubu) and, as is usual with pioneers, it is those other bands that went on to strike commercial gold. There have been nigh on 15 albums released since those classics and, sadly, I haven’t heard any of them until their latest release, Lady From Shanghai. I say sadly because Lady From Shanghai is utterly brilliant.
Being the avant-garage (a term they coined themselves) band that they are the album is released with a manifesto: Smash the hegemony of dance. Stand still. The dancer is puppet to the dance. It’s past time somebody put an end to this abomination. Lady From Shanghai is an album of dance music fixed. Depending on your politics, this is pretentious rubbish, a piss-take or the almost lost art of intelligent rock music.
The record opens with ‘Thanks’; there are disco beats in the background before one of the most distinctive voices, David Thomas, in rock sings: “You can go to hell, hell. Go to hell.” And suddenly you smile when you realise the melody line is from ‘Ring My Bell’. If this is dance music, then it’s dance music played in an underground disco in East Berlin in the ‘70s
Pere Ubu were always the sound of broken, decaying cityscapes. They are more likely to sing about bus journeys with insane drivers than the Cadillac’s of Springsteen. They travel in a maze of deserted, scary streets, trying to find hope but finding only themselves in a mirror. “They say that truth hurts, but not bad enough,” as they sing on ‘Lampshade Man’, a song that hits you with repetition like a hammer slamming you over and over on the factory floor. Pere Ubu sound more prescient now than they did back in the ‘70s.
‘Mandy’ is my highlight on the album. It starts on the “outskirts of nowhere”, in a bleak landscape of alienation. Thomas sings, “Mandy, would you come out to play.” His voice is half plaintive, half crazy, like the “crazy jukebox playing all shook up.”
‘And Then Nothing Happened’ could be a perfect pop song but Pere Ubu distort it through the dystopian vision of nihilism. The end of the song descends into the soundscape of a factory or a building site. In the background, there is the sound of an asthmatic chest, rising and falling in slumber that is neither restful nor escapist.
‘Musicians Are Scum’ is a great, dark song about how musicians will always fuck you up and lie to you. “Get to the back of the line with all those other lives I’ve ruined.”
‘The Road Trip of Bipasha Ahmed’ is a sultry groove, a night-time blues road trip through the crowded, lonely streets of the city where desecrated souls search for hope in a whore’s embrace or religious fervour. A sound like a siren interjects near the end and we wonder what heinous crime the narrator has committed.
‘414 Seconds’ is set in the lonely apartment land of buildings where people dwell alone in boxes and awake from nightmares to stumble, half-mad, onto streets, running for buses that always leave just before they can catch them. Thomas sings: “Did I do that terrible thing in my dream, only in my dream?” Even dreams are nightmares and nightmares meld with reality until we cannot tell what is real.
If you want a record to dance to then look elsewhere. But if you want dance music fixed on a dark vision then this is for you.
Very highly recommended.
They will be touring the UK in April. Check out their website for details.
This review first appeared in Louder Than War: http://louderthanwar.com/pere-ubu-lady-from-shanghai-album-review-2/