Monday, July 6, 2009

July 6: Pere Ubu, "The Modern Dance"

Artist: Pere Ubu
Album: The Modern Dance
Year: 1978
Label: Blank Records

By far, one of the least known, yet highly influential bands in history, were post-punk pioneers, Pere Ubu. Emerging from the urban wasteland of 1970's Cleveland, OH, the group may be the most influential band in the history of "the rock and roll city." With their "artsy," sparse sound, the band influenced everyone from Joy Division to The Birthday Party, and laid the groundwork for some of the most important bands in the history of punk rock. It can truly be said that every album the band has released over their thirty-five year history is well worth owning. Constantly pushing the boundaries on what can be done musically, the band continues to make amazing, original music to this day. However, there is little question that their finest, and most influential work appears on their 1978 debut, the magnificent recording, The Modern Dance.

Pere Ubu, which was one of the many bands that formed following the break up of Rocket From The Tombs (the Dead Boys also came from the band), took the spirit of "art rock" and infused a heavy dose of punk attitude, creating one of the most unique sounds in history. One of the strangest things that immediately jumps out upon inspecting The Modern Dance is the presence of Kenneth Hamann as producer. Best known for his work with Mel Tormé and Grand Funk Railroad, it seems quite puzzling that he would work with such an avant band on their debut record. Yet, it is perhaps due to his work that the band comes across so clearly, even with their strange, somewhat chaotic sound. The album itself was recorded over the course of three sessions, spanning nearly two years, and three different studios. Such inconsistency often leads to results that are less than stellar, yet the sound on The Modern Dance is amazingly cohesive, and the songs fit together as if they were recorded in a single afternoon. It is this ability to make the complex and avant seem so simple and second nature that makes Pere Ubu such a sensational group of musicians. Taking the experimental approach of artists like Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground, and spinning a punk sense of urgency over it, the music of Pere Ubu is truly like nothing else in history.

Musically, the close relation to The Dead Boys quickly becomes quite obvious, and in many ways, the only difference between the bands is the volume of the music and the fact that Pere Ubu are far more musically experimental. Guitarist Tom Herman is, by far, one of the most underrated guitarists in the entire history of recorded music. Invoking the spirit of Chuck Berry as much as Johnny Ramone, his performance throughout The Modern Dance is simply fantastic. Yet it is also his ability to play lightning fast chords as much as wildly strange progressions that gives the songs much of their almost eerie mood. The rhythm section of Tony Maimone and Scott Kraus may very well be the most underrated rhythm section ever. Masterfully deploying some of the most sparse, yet complex beats anywhere, the duo click perfectly, and the backbone they create is often stunning. Though Maimone went on to work with musicians like Frank Black (The Pixies) and They Might Be Giants, it is his work with Pere Ubu that makes him one of the greatest percussionists in history. Maimone and Krauss' performance on songs like "Chinese Radiation" and "Street Waves" are truly phenomenal, and it is on songs like these that one realizes that the music of Pere Ubu was amazingly far ahead of its time. The final element that makes the music of Pere Ubu so unique is the multi-instrumental work of Allen Ravenstine. In many ways serving as what would now be considered a DJ, Ravenstine plays keyboards, synthesizers, saxophone, as well as providing many of the odd sound effects that are heard throughout The Modern Dance. It is very much Ravenstines' approach to the synthesizer that makes him unique; as he uses it more to create moods and sounds as opposed to "playing" it in a formal sense. The combination of the superb musicianship and dedication to innovation that makes the music of Pere Ubu so phenomenal.

After just a few moments of listening, it is quite clear that the vocals of David Thomas had a massive influence on Jello Bifara. With his strange pitched singing and unique sense of rhythm, there are few vocalists who can compare to Thomas. Whether he is delivering slow, spoken, outright spooky lyrics as on "Sentimental Journey" or crying out in angst on "Non-Alignment Pact," David Thomas is undeniably one of the most talented and extraordinary vocalists to ever step into a recording booth. Often sounding somewhat disjointed from the music, Thomas sometimes comes off as if he is talking to himself and happens to be near a microphone. Yet, after a few listenings, it is clear that this guise is simply the genius that lies within Thomas. Lyrically, The Modern Dance follows the punk rock "norm," with songs of revolution, apathy, and general angst. The first track on the album, "Non-Alignment Pact," is one of the most creatively spun, yet completely simple songs of romantic disillusionment. Overall, it is one of the most brilliant, straightforward rock songs ever recorded, and it is this song that so many bands took influence from, and it would be impossible to count the number of times the song has been covered. While the band members of Pere Ubu are easily some of the finest in the history of punk rock, it is the vocals of David Thomas that take the band to the next level, and have made them into the underground icons that they remain to this day.

Take the soundscapes of Pink Floyd, the avant nature of Frank Zappa, and the pure energy of Iggy Pop, and you might have something that isn't quite exactly like the music of Pere Ubu. Truly an anomaly of the music world, they remain one of the most influential, yet unknown bands that the world has ever heard. With one of the most accomplished rhythm sections ever, and the top notch guitar work of Tom Herman, along with the unique sounds created by Allen Ravenstine, there are still very few bands that match up talent-wise. Adding in the unmistakable, unparalleled vocal stylings of David Thomas, the music of Pere Ubu is truly awe-inspiring and must be experienced to be properly understood. Often pushing the envelope on what "is" music, the musicians of Pere Ubu created some of the most original, yet undeniably amazing music that had ever been heard, and the albums' influence is still very much felt to this day. Though their entire recorded catalog is worth owning, it is their 1978 debut, The Modern Dance, that is their finest work, and well beyond an essential album for every collection.

Standout tracks: "Non-Alignment Pact," "The Modern Dance," and "Sentimental Journey."

No comments: