1978: Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance
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
2001: Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions - Bavarian Fruit Bread
Though it sounds like none of them, this seeming one-off of a release from Hope Sandoval easily stands among Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond Day, Bridget Saint John's Songs for a Gentle Man, and Linda Perhacs' Parallelograms as a dreamy folk classic. It's a breezy, sunny day outside, and I'm just playing this album over and over again searching for the right words to hold it. The thing is, as vaporous as these twelve songs feel, I'm finding myself bowled over by the strength of the songwriting. It's that perfect mix of drift and meticulous arrangements that defies pat conclusions. Much like Colleen's fragile instrumentals, the material is as barely there as it is indelible.
Then there's that voice. A mist-borne bubble of collapsed breaths. A tremble in the embrace of the impossibly healing forces of nature. A cool whisper in a rustling of dense, massive velvet curtains. It never fails to send chills all through me, to the point where I feel helpless against it. And the instrumentation (performed by Sandoval, MBV's Colm O'Ciosoig, and eight guests) almost mirrors this sensation, bolstering as much as deferring to her magical intonations. Bavarian Fruit Bread is just a cut above the rest when it comes to mellow perfection. It never quite loses its grip, even during the barely-there instrumental passages, creating an impenetrable cocoon of criss-crossing blue ribbon.
"Around My Smile" is as sexy as it is wiped out. It's like a vacant tome to feminine allure that, in its dry way, manages to make you acquiesce to the hokey sentiment that Sandoval really does "got it goin on." Then there's the gorgeous interpretation of Ballad of Cable Hogue's "Butterfly Mornings" (with folk luminary Bert Jansch on guitar). Not to take away from Stella Stevens' charming performance, but Sandoval once again takes something near cornball and makes it a thing of dusty, irresistible beauty. If Cable had been directed by Wim Wenders instead of Peckinpah, this is what the song might've been like.
Another highlight is the impossibly soft lullaby "Feeling of Gaze." After a stately cello intro, it melts into a sad sawing rhythm that breaks for a call to celebration like a charmingly weird antithesis of both Madonna and Kool and the Gang's exclamations. If you needed one song to sell you on this album, "Feeling of Gaze" is it. Though the heartbreaking Jesus and Mary Chain cover ushering in the record should be more than enough. Then there's "On the Low," a phased-out, bluesy rhythmic partner to the shoegaze-toned "Around My Smile."
After the near eight-minute Landing-esque murk of "Lose Me on the Way," we are knocked from a bottomless dreaming haze into the slow stirring of an unlisted twelfth track, thus ending what has been an earthy yet gauzy listening excursion on a relatively grounded note, rather than an almost frighteningly ethereal one. Which shows that, as much as this is an album perfect for kicking back, it's also ideal as a harrowing experience in losing oneself in sheer sensuality before emerging back into the terse realm of everyday life.
2006: Andy Ortmann / John Wiese - Recorder Out of Tune
Am I wrong-headed here? Are my reasons for avoiding this release for so long at all valid? Well, my general ambivalence toward John Wiese, I suppose, is pretty easily defensible, if only on purely aesthetic grounds. I can't deny the dude is talented but, as so many noise artists should, he needs to exercise some quality control. He's definitely produced some stuff that kicks ass -- Frankenstein and Dracula Girls Tokyo Headlock absolutely reamed me, not to mention the lion's share of his solo output.
Which smoothly segues to my primary hesitation concerning this disc: it's a collaboration. Wiese does a ton of them, and by and large I find them flaccid and utterly unessential, as I do most noise collabs, even if they do get their own separate name or are the names of the collaborators appended to one another with an ampersand. For all of noise's absurdity, it's the musical ghetto in which I find the most sincere and personal, not to mention the most complex and thought-provoking, products. These are all qualities that must be uttered by a singular voice. Sure, I think it's cool that members of Double Leopards want to play with any and everyone who lives nearby, and maybe it improves their art, but nothing I?ve heard from these other configurations approaches the group of genesis. Every release, and every time I?ve seen them perform, you get an absolute sense of solidarity and understanding, and suffice it to say the whole is more than the sum. There you have it, a specific rant about noise collaborations.
In any case, I didn't particularly see how the pristine productions of Andy Ortmann would mesh with the deth [not a typo]/dumb noise of Wiese (no insult intended). And, consequently, their disparate forms are exactly what make this disc so exciting to me; a marriage of the upper and lower brains, the ethereal with the visceral. Indeed, sometimes Ortmann presses his music to feature some, well, musicality, or perhaps continuity. And Wiese isn't always the most adroit at rendering individual, interesting sounds that stride above the morass. In this regard, we find a near-perfect complement, blending two of the most appealing, but disparate, aspects of noise. I would have no reservations granting this record a perfect score if not for the brevity, so I'll say it now: Andy and John, you have my blessing to continue this collaboration, and maybe even christen it unto itself.
1984: Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade
Hüsker Dü formed when I was born and released Zen Arcade when I was barely a smidgen of the music junkie I was to become. It took a phase of dad rock (literally whatever my pop listened to) followed by a phase of MTV-informed pop, then a hair metal stint, followed by a phase of industrial and alternative rock, before I was turned onto Zen Arcade in high school. It was a friend's cool older brother that tipped me to it, and it's stuck with me to this day. I've grown to listen to a wide array of music, but, in a way, little has changed in what I respond to. Raw emotion and hard rock still gets me psyched about life. The noisier the better, and boy is Zen Arcade noisy. It's still one of the most potent things I've ever heard, and continues to strike an emotional chord that’s as adult as it is adolescent. It's like one long, exasperated, bitter swallow of everything that pushes you to utter despair. When listening to it, the thought of intellectualizing or critiquing the songs feels mind-numbingly anti-climactic. So I figure I’ll just have to rant here.
There was something of that Nine Inch Nails-type lashing out that hooked me to songs like "Never Talking to You Again" and "I'll Never Forget You." You can bet there were folks in my high school days that fit those sentiments to a tee. But as much as there was that sort of run-of-the-mill teenage catharsis, there was an earnestness and urgency to the raw production and rabid playing that made NIN and Smashing Pumpkins seem flat by comparison. Admittedly, I never could stand the noisy sprawl of "Reoccurring Dreams" for too long, yet I could see how perfect it worked as a finale. Now it's my favorite part of the record by far, though nearly every song on here is a classic in the truest sense. Take away the context the band is placed in, and what you have is a miraculous recording more than worthy of one of those classic album docs they do for releases like The Joshua Tree and Transformer. A lot of these songs could - and should - be played on a classic rock station. Zen Arcade is more than just a punk rock staple; it's a solid, infectious and perfectly coalescing collection of songs. I sensed this at seventeen and I know this to be true today.
Bob Mould, as a performer, does that half-singing, half-howling style better than anyone. Every line is belted out as though he were singing while teetering on a cliff edge. It's so simultaneously bracing and heart-rending that a punk novice like myself couldn't help but be taken in by the messy, early-hardcore template they work from. I'm still no punk/hardcore aficionado, but I'll take Zen Arcade over the more pop-embracing Bob Mould or Sugar records any day. It's still that perfect balance of pure pop and utter dissonance that moves me more than anything else, and this album is one of the pinnacles of that type of melding. Though it's as much in the variation from track to track as it is within a given tune, there are plenty of smart, fist-pumpingly great hooks mixed in with the seeming reckless abandon of the performances. The experience is one of becoming at home with indelible songs, as well as feeling like you're mercilessly being slapped around by your inner demons. The record's not comfy, but it's definitely inviting.
What's interesting about this album, upon reflection, is how much of it is just dumb hard rock tropes revitalized. Many of the choruses are as rote as can be, and the lyrics are ridiculously direct. "Standing by the Sea" is as much a flailing, impassioned instant classic (check the urgent bass line) as it is cornball high school poetry. "Hare Krishna" is a goofy, messing around in the studio idea made gripping by sheer cacophony. On "Somewhere," the heroic guitar line takes the banal lyrics, "there's happiness instead of pain" and "dirt is washed out with the rain" and casts them in iron. Heart-on-your-sleeve is rarely this unassailable. It's such a tricky thing that when it works you almost don't want to analyze for fear of upsetting the translation from speakers to the ears to the brain. Fickle folks could poke a million holes in this album, but in the end it still moves people more than it inspires derision. It's just what the doctor ordered when it comes to rock music that’s as endearing as it is fun. I've read a lot of online comments calling Zen Arcade impenetrable and something that cred-seekers cite but never listen to. Without going into this too deeply (we're talking internet comment blurbs here) I'd like to reiterate that this is an immensely enjoyable album. It's one to blast at high volume and air guitar around the room to. It's like Kiss anthems for people who don't like Kiss. And it's nicely filled out with heady interludes (okay, so the tepid piano instrumental "Monday Will Never Be The Same" may be kinda weak -- at least it's short) to keep things from getting too overwhelming.
This is a record for everyone who loves rock music - not just punk rock elitists - so readers new to this band should take note. With any luck Hüsker Dü will follow suit with other great independent acts of the eighties and reunite for at least a show or two. This album alone (along with Everything Falls Apart, New Day Rising and the Metal Circus EP) shows a band well suited to a continued life outside of their heyday. If not, at least we've got this material to keep us tuned in to how a formula rooted in simplicity can translate into timelessness.
1981: Holly and The Italians - The Right to Be Italian
It doesn’t seem fair that Pat Benetar is a cultural touchstone, the quintessential ’80s tough girl, while Holly Beth Vincent is all but lost to rock history. These two contemporaries share a pop aesthetic strongly influenced by both ’60s girl groups and ’70s punk rock, but while it didn’t take Benetar long to win international fame, Vincent has continued to languish in relative obscurity, despite the fact that she’s the real deal. Sure, we all love to sing along with “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and “Love Is a Battlefield,” but Benetar didn’t even co-write those hits. Vincent not only writes her own songs, but also collaborated with Joey Ramone on a 1982 cover of “I Got You Babe.” Given the choice, I know who I’m picking.
It was Vincent’s first album, as the frontwoman of Holly and The Italians, that caught my eye in a record store bargain bin. The album cover features Vincent holding her guitar, looking tough but vaguely out of place in a pink dress and matching gloves, with short, ever-so-slightly mullet-ish hair. The bold, trashy title of the single “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” sold me, but I didn’t expect much beyond novelty value out of the LP. In that song, Vincent tears apart the girlfriend of a guy she likes, derisively noting, “She likes to seem intellectual/ and to be a musician.” It’s everything that a song called “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” should be — bratty, snarky, and full of high school kitsch, but impossibly catchy at the same time.
The rest of The Right to Be Italian exceeded my wildest expectations. Though the songs focus on themes that are so common as to be clichéd, Vincent injects each with such vitality, via a unique combination of quick-witted commentary and upbeat melodies, that the album never feels trite. In “Youth Coup,” the obligatory exhortation to teenage rebellion, Vincent’s voice sounds neither angry nor disaffected. ’60s pop influences are obvious on “I Wanna Go Home,” in which hand-claps and boy/girl harmonizing back lyrics about the singer’s homesickness for Los Angeles, with its Burger Kings and 7/11 Slurpees, written after the band relocated from the States to London. The Italians really cook on the rockabilly-flavored “Means to a Den,” with the killer line, “It takes intelligence to change the world.” A faithful but knowing cover of The Chiffons’ dreamy “Just for Tonight” confirms the band’s source of inspiration.
The Right to Be Italian is a radio-ready pop classic that just never took off. For some reason, “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” didn’t even make it to the singles charts. And though Holly Beth Vincent will never appear alongside Pat Benetar (or Chryssie Hynde, or Debbie Harry) on VH1’s I Love the ’80s, she remains the real deal, continuing to [write and release music->http://www.myspace.com/hollybethvincent] more than 25 years after her underrated debut.
2006: The Magik Markers - The Voldoror Dance
Sometimes I just don’t even know what to think about the idea of rock music. At this point, the all-encompassing definition of rock has become a joke; I’ve had it with dubiously intentioned attempts to rescue this dying lumbering dinosaur that’s been limping around lethargically since whatever comet of corporate greed and middle-American complacency decided to ruin the free-spirited fun for the rest of us. I mean, we have some folks who can be allowed to participate in metaphorical near-necrophilia; if you’re in a band with noticeable talent and vigor, like, say, The Dirtbombs or Comets On Fire or Major Stars, who can make head-crackingly excellent rock ’n’ roll, this is by far a much needed respite. But I’m through with those rock elitists who are trying way too hard to define rock as the one domineering genre above all others or as a piece of narcissistic abstract comfort that makes whatever schmuck with a guitar or flashy stage moves feel he is a special and clever being amongst his petty escapades of sex, drugs, and his dying mistress. I don’t even need to start naming names, but if you turn on your TV or radio, it’s there: a fairly repulsive and vile rotting corpse of “authentic” rock idealism that rings nauseatingly narcissistic and cliquish.
Since we really can’t save it, we just need people to destroy rock ’n’ roll from the inside out, to the point where it will potentially become vibrant again to those willing to think outside earthly constraints. And as too many self-consciously hip guitar bands have shown us as of late, you can’t invigorate anything with doses of stagnation; try telling that to whomever thinks some power chords, coke, and backstage oral sex is a great statement of purpose or valid artistic sentiment in and of itself, and you may get hostile stares. I mean, Jagger and Page had a lot of lurid and despicably hedonistic fun in their day, but they were also mad geniuses. I don’t know what kind of debauchery the Magik Markers get up to – maybe none for all I know – but at least by listening to The Voldoror Dance, the latest release in a never-ending series of tour CD-Rs, weird vinyl, and unofficial CD randomness, they’re probably having a seance or destroying things living or inanimate, even if only in the fantasies that dart through their synapses while drudging up such glorious mess. In the process, they gouge rock 'n' roll inside out, and what seems like a damaging overhaul is in actuality a violent life force that rock as a whole so desperately needs.
I’ve written about the Markers before, and I really can’t offer much more in the way of new approaches to these geniuses other than that they are my only uninhibited dream of a band that’s materialized in my young life. My generation produced a lot of commodity that was supposed to make me feel like throwing chairs and throwing a fist in society’s jaw, but this music actually delivers on such promises of daydreamed and internalized rebellion. It all feels beautifully destructive and powerful, which I’m told by the elders of rock music is what it had set out to do all along. It’s vicious and cacophonic, and there are barely any chords or riffs or any of that, but it’s honestly far from a criticism. Any rock snob who wants to downplay what the Markers do is overlooking that rock ’n’ roll isn’t supposed to pat us on the head. The people who wanted safe rock got their Pat Boones and their Breads and their Air Supplys; this contentious mess is potentially of the most freeing scuzz produced since no-wave and Ron Asheton made their respective marks.
But I digress. This is about the Markers. The Voldoror Dance is their most “professional” recorded piece, in that it was set to tape in an actual studio, and you can hear their tantrums in full clear sonic glory in the now, rather than echoing in your head after attending one of their shows. As most everything Elisa, Pete, and Leah have put out, it’s paradoxically beautiful and repulsive and flooring all at once; “Binary For Carey Loren” is 26-and-a-half minutes of what it means to have enjoyed punk rock, or, as a young and disillusioned music fan, to have a record in your collection that at least appears to encompass the thrill it was to have heard Kick Out The Jams or No New York when they were first unveiled. Amidst all of this id relinquishing, we also get the psychedelic-dubbed wonderment of “Ab’R-AChad-Ab’ Ra” and an honest-to-god filth rock death chant in “Pinkie Brown Goes To The Shore,” as great a nugget of bile as any since Pussy Galore vomited all over their garage.
Each day going into 2007 I see a steady stream of chaos, whether it be more corporate idiocy that urges us to rank our friends, a clueless and shortsighted populace willing to let pixelated representations of cartoon characters constitute a terror scare, or just the general mass vile stew of political and religious tomfoolery and everyday selfishness that permeates our culture. The Voldoror Dance is as confusing and bewildering a representation of our tumultuous new century as we may get, and since everyone is frowning and panicking about how dire the state of being alive has become, at least now we have musicians who, intentionally or not, are soundtracking and, ironically, relieving the headache I get everyday from turning on my television.
1. The Scream Of The Horses Glowing White
2. Binary For Carey Loren
3. Pinkie Brown Goes To The Shore (The Hero Of The Sea Is A Hero Of Death)
4. Ab’R-ACHad-Ab’ Ra