A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Jan. 25, 2013
When I first heard that Pere Ubu’s new album was called Lady From Shanghai, I figured it might have some weird connection with the 1947 Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth film with a similar title. Ubu has already saluted the shadowy world of noir with its 2006 album Why I Hate Women, which Ubu’s singer David Thomas described at the time as “my idea of the Jim Thompson novel he never wrote.”
However, if there is a connection between the new Ubu album and Orson Welles, I’ve yet to unravel that thread. Instead, Thomas and crew, this time around, are apparently obsessed with dance music.
I’m not kidding.
“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.” Cryptic as it is, this quotation from Ubu’s website just about says it all.
Pere Ubu has some strange parallels with “dance music.” The band arose from the Cleveland rock ’n’ roll scene, recording its first album, The Modern Dance, in 1977, around the same time that disco music began to sweep the world.
Of course, even back in the hazy ’70s, nobody in his right mind would confuse The Modern Dance with disco. (It wasn’t really punk rock either — Ubu was more complex — though that’s how the group was tagged in its early days.)
Synthesizers have been a key part of Pere Ubu’s sound, as they had been in disco and the electronic dance music that followed. However, Ubu’s synths — otherworldly, post-apocalyptic soundscapes provided by Allen Ravenstine (who eventually quit the band to become an airlinepilot) — were a lot different from the clean, corporate sounds heard in disco.
On the new album, synth man Robert Wheeler goes for those Ravenstinesque effects, all the screeches, beeps, bleeps, buzzes, gurgles, and whooshes. Those, along with Thomas’ wounded warble and oblique lyrics, reassure listeners that this is indeed a Pere Ubu album. But the band also incorporates elements of dance electronica — a throbbing bass line and industrial drum sounds.
Lady From Shanghai sounds as if the Huns have laid siege to the dance floor, with frightened club kids fleeing for their lives as the beat goes on. It’s New Year’s Eve in the nuthouse, and the party is beginning to get dangerous.
Thomas decided to record this album as a game of “Chinese whispers,” another name for the game also known as “telephone” and “town gossip,” in which the first player whispers something to the next; that person whispers what he heard, or thinks he heard, to the next person; and so on down the line. Usually, by the time the message reaches the last person, it has changed dramatically.
Doing this in a musical context means that the band did not rehearse, and each member recorded his or her part in isolation from the others. Lyrics were improvised with no vocal retakes.
“The musician should not be allowed to see the Big Picture until the composition exists in a near-finished form, and, ideally, only after he has contributed to it,” Thomas writes in Chinese Whispers, a recently released book about the making of Lady From Shanghai.
“The goal should be to capture the unique and distinctive voice of the individual as he struggles to cobble Meaning together out of a soup of confusions, contradictions, hopes, and fears, information, and misinformation. Such is the nature of real life. Real life is the only worthwhile ambition for art.”
Don’t ask me to explain the exact logistics of how this worked. But considering all these strange self-imposed rules, it’s a wonder the album is as cohesive as it is. Somehow, it hangs together in its own peculiar way.
The album kicks off with a song called “Thanks,” but gratitude doesn’t seem to be the major theme. It’s a bizarre regurgitation of the old disco hit “Ring My Bell.” But Thomas changes the refrain to “Go to hell.”
This isn’t the only song with strong echoes of an old pop hit. Fans of The Chambers Brothers will recognize that group’s late-’60s hit “Time Has Come Today” coming through the fog in Ubu’s song “Musicians Are Scum.” This cut also has my favorite lyric on the album: “Why don’t you get in line with all those others whose lives I have ruined?”
The beginning of “Free White,” which starts with Thomas crooning, “It’s a wonderful world, it’s a beautiful thing,” reminds me a little bit of another Ohio band that started out about the same time as Ubu. I’m talking, of course, about Devo and the song “Beautiful World.” But while Devo was obviously being ironic, with singer Mark Mothersbaugh sounding purposefully smarmy, Thomas, as he sobs the lyrics, sounds like some nuclear-winter survivor trying to convince himself that all is well.
The drums turn fierce on “Feuksley Ma’am, the Hearing.” There are no vocals here except some spoken-word mumbling and some wind sounds that make this track sound like winter in hell. Meanwhile the song “And Nothing Happened at All” starts out urgent, like some forgotten Pearl Jam song. But about a minute and a half into it, the whole thing seems to dissolve into a sound collage.
Another standout is “Lampshade Man,” a sturdy tune that starts out with Thomas moaning, “They say the truth hurts.” Actually there’s not much more to the lyrics. The beat intensifies as the song goes on. “The Road Trip of Bipasha Ahmed” sounds like variations on a horror-movie theme. Thomas sings, “She calls me Johnny Rocket, but I don’t know why.”
Unfortunately Lady From Shanghai ends not with a bang but a thud. “The Carpenter Sun” features Thomas singing a ploddingly slow tune (“She is a curtain” is one of the few lines I can make out) over what comes off as spare Wheeler sound effects that didn’t fit anywhere else. It’s a pretty safe bet that nobody will dance to this one.
But even though the band doesn’t leave its best for the last, the latest offering makes me happy to share a planet with Pere Ubu.
Here's a song from the album
You can also hear another song from Lady From Shanghai HERE