With The Modern Dance, Pere Ubu accomplished something almost no other artist has ever accomplished: they created a timeless record. Twenty-six years after its inception, The Modern Dance sounds as jarring and radical as it must have in 1978. This doesn't make The Modern Dance the greatest album ever made, but it certainly makes it one of the most interesting ones. And as a fun exercise, I'm going to review The Modern Dance as if it came out today, on December 20, 2004:
Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi is considered the first absurdist drama ever written and caused a riot on the night of its first performance in France in 1896. In this scatological farce, Pere Ubu (which translates into King Turd) is an obese and vile member of the bourgeoisie who murders literally hundreds of people in his overblown and insatiable pursuit of money and power.
Never before has a band's name fit the group so perfectly. Straight out of Cleveland, Pere Ubu laughs at American complacency and entertainment expectations, beginning their debut album with 30 seconds of blistering and uncompromising guitar feedback before falling into the avant-garage anthem "Nonalignment Pact." At that point, you think the pain has passed. But Pere Ubu has other plans. The pain has only begun, because David Thomas, the human embodiment of Midwest paranoia, begins yelping and squealing over the riffing and senseless electronic squeals as if a whole flock of fire-breathing geese are chasing him in his flying car. And only them does the horror really hit you: Pere Ubu has a bloated mental patient for a lead singer.
And for the rest of "Nonalignment Pact," the catchiest and most fun attempt at garage-rock in years, Thomas blurts the silliest lyrics with such frenzy you start to believe these lines are coming from his heart: "I want to make a deal with you girl/ Get it signed by the heads of state/ I want to make a deal with you girl/ Get it recognized around the world/ You better sign my/ Nonalignment pact." Synthesizer farts, whooshing air noises, and a single-minded groove take the song to heights unseen since "Debaser."
And the Pixies are the best starting point, too. Think Pixies if, instead of creating alternative rock, they had instead created a steady market for dramatized alien rape sounds. David Thomas and friends certainly couldn't have made this album without the Pixies yelping with a fat guy or Captain Beefheart showing the world the power of nonsense. And they've grabbed hold of the spirit of the Contortions, Gang of Four, and every other post-punk or no wave group that wanted to dance. But Pere Ubu has mangled these influences through a strange new filter. It's not blue collar; it's not hipster pretension; it's not anything except really, really frighteningly weird.
And the rest of the album beyond the startling "Nonalignment Pact" makes good on that statement, albeit with less guttural impact. "The Modern Dance" and "Laughing" both stir and brew into creepy and unsettling no wave soundscapes before exploding into jittery dance-if-you-have-a-seizure-coming ecstasy. Saxophones and comically high-end guitars splatter around David Thomas's multi-tracked vocals; making lyrics that sound like a tortured homeless man's diary entry become profound statements about belief and chaos: "If the devil comes / We'll shoot him with a gun."
The wonderfully strange "Chinese Radiation" makes good on its name and announces the second half of the record as the extremely experimental half (because apparently the first half wasn't weird enough). "Life Stinks" is a two minute squeaky fart that comes across as honestly as farts tend to do. "Real World" and "Over My Head" try to match "The Modern Dance" and "Laughing" as a one-two combo, but instead meander and never hit the groove of the formers. "Sentimental Journey," literally six minutes of
moans and glass breaking, even makes a case for Pere Ubu as the shittiest and most pretentious band ever.
But "Humor Me," which ends The Modern Dance, returns Pere Ubu to our previous conclusion: they're the weirdest good band we've got. What starts as a really lame reggae prank (complete with "It's just a joke, mon" Jamaican accent) suddenly transforms into a Pixies-cum-psychedelic dirge with David Thomas sincerely wailing, "So humor me!" over a climactic guitar solo. Did Pere Ubu just end their record with a mock-reggae jam/indie rock anthem? Has a band already bested "Take Me Out" for the Mid-Song Transition Award?
Pere Ubu have announced themselves loud and clear as a rock presence, a rock presence just as soon to implode as to conquer the world. Four records of "Nonalignment Pact" and "Humor Me" will get them David Thomas statues while one record of "Sentimental Journey" will get them shows in friends' basements. The verdict is out on these Cleveland rockers, but maybe that's what Pere Ubu is all about. Is it a joke, mon?
1. Nonalignment Pact
2. The Modern Dance
4. Street Waves
5. Chinese Radiation
6. Life Stinks
7. Real World
8. Over My Head
9. Sentimental Journey
10. Humor Me