By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
PENNSYLVANIA KICKS OFF with a half second of promise. Tom Herman revs his guitar up an octave and any destination seems possible. Unfortunately, soon after, he locks in with the drums and grinds in place with the compulsive precision of abandoned industrial machinery. The motor's racing, but Pere Ubu won't release the parking brake. Then David Thomas mutters, "Culture is a swampland of superstition, ignorance and abuse," and proceeds to inform us that "geography is a language they can't screw up," because "the land and what we add to it cannot lie." A provocative critique for a visual artist maybe, but can it be translated into electricity and backbeat? The answer is: not by a man who's reduced the once-expansive joy of his cracked tenor to a sullen monotone--a voice too resigned to risk working out the possibilities of its own pretenses.
On their late-'70s punk classics, The Modern Dance and Dub Housing, Cleveland's Pere Ubu realized that Rust Belt grime was as inescapable as the weather. Complaining was useless, but the need to sculpt an imaginative shelter from the clatter of deteriorating factories was as necessary an act of self-preservation as coming inside from a thunderstorm. With the yelp of a manic Burl Ives, Thomas voiced a defiantly gawky humanism as basic, yet indomitable, as "It's me again!" Rock 'n' roll might not change the world, Pere Ubu suggested, but their music's cagey eccentricity could help you hear a symphony in the oppressive urban blare.
Twenty years and innumerable lineup shifts later, raucous absurdism has collapsed into confused paranoia. As keyboards squeak like rats and squawk like car horns, Thomas intones that a TV-tutored suburbanite's worst fears about "Urban Lifestyle" lurk "somewhere out there." So, Thomas skulks off to the last refuge of the nostalgic drifter, the badlands of American mythos, to haunt a desolate expanse--the above-mentioned "geography"--that's no more hospitable than the city. "Is there anybody here who knows me?" the singer whispers hesitantly, as if fearful of any answer--or none at all.
The chilly echo of the repetitive bottleneck riffs and weary, plodding drums distance Thomas even further from the past he idealizes. Our disillusioned archaeologist excavates the stock detritus of Americana (deserted frontier towns, the ghost of Muddy Waters) and sinks waist-deep in the cultural swampland. And the group never accelerates to a liberating tempo--although it's foolish to expect an adrenaline shot from a band that seems content to turn the line "I fear the pace of change" into a mantra.
Pere Ubu closed 1988's The Tenement Year with a hypothetical: If someday "We Have the Technology" to mechanically preserve life's most temporary exhilarations, to relive any past we see fit for rediscovery, would we risk it? Ten years after, technology holds no such ambivalent promises. Trapped between an unimaginable future and an inaccessible past, Pere Ubu has frozen life's most helpless, bleak moments into a static eternity.