Dusted Reviews

Pere Ubu - Lady From Shanghai

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Pere Ubu

Album: Lady From Shanghai

Label: Fire

Review date: Feb. 12, 2013

“Thanks” opens this 17th Pere Ubu album in a spasmodic, staccato burst of robot disco, a locked-in groove of bass and drums, propulsive yet oddly drained of hedonism. It’s a cover, more or less, of Anita Ward’s strobe-era mega-hit “Ring My Bell,” abstracted and intellectualized, and it makes perfect sense when David Thomas comes in querulous and tetchy as ever, singing “You can go to he-ell-ell,” where the chorus should be. Pere Ubu — born in the twilight of disco and the earliest glimmerings of post-punk, named for Alfred Jarry’s monstrous king, unamenable to outside strictures but girdled by the most extreme sort of internal rigors and disciplines — is back at it, upending everything you thought you knew about rock ‘n’ roll.

Lady From Shanghai reconvenes a very seasoned Ubu line-up — bassist Michele Temple, drummer Steve Mehlman, Keith Moline on guitar, all members of the band for the last two decades. (Gagarin, the U.K. electronics and keyboards eccentric who tours with Ubu, shows up for some eerily menacing piano dissonance on “Another One (Oh Maybelline),” and Darryl Boon blows out some truly disturbing trills and runs on his clarinet in “Thanks,” but mostly it’s the regulars.) They are super-tight and competent, but with an undercurrent of madness and chaos, a well-oiled machine that is infinitely more interesting because it might blow up at any time.

Their intuitive, interlocked playing becomes all the more remarkable when you read about how these songs were made, with no two players ever in the same room (and two in the same building only once and forbidden to exchange anything but pleasantries). “The musician should be alone with his thoughts, uncertain but determined. Isolated,” wrote Thomas in the accompanying 100-page book, Chinese Whispers. “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.”

So you try to imagine the insistent bass line of “Lampshade” evolving in isolation from its herky-jerk beat, from the crazed (and crazy-making) sirens, from the sharp stabs of guitar, from Thomas’s repeated insistence that “They say the truth hurts / just not bad enough.” You try to see this track not as a freight-train onslaught of coordinated ambition, but a collage of isolated ideas. And you can’t. It’s like the monkeys in the room typing, except that every one of them has turned in a flawless, hypnotic, unreal narrative, whose pieces conflict and contradict and reinforce one another, but are nevertheless part of a whole.

Thomas, too, improvises, muttering directly into the recorder about whatever occurs to him, with no re-takes, edits or revisions. He turns particularly mesmerizing in “414 seconds,” a long, hallucinatory exploration of the boundaries of dream and reality, mostly spoken but sometimes flowering into wavery, house-of-mirrors vibrato. It is, perhaps, the fact that there’s no net and no do-overs that makes the performance so engrossing.

Thomas talks about the “danger and uncertainty” inherent in musical performance, the tension that the audience will feel as it wonders whether what it’s hearing is purposeful or an accident. He is talking mainly about performed music, but it works, at least in this case, for the recorded Lady From Shanghai. Rarely has an album so tightly competent also been so fluid and full of chaos. Inside the inexorable grooves of tracks like “Free White,” “Mandy” and “And Then Nothing Happened,” an unpredictable, unguidable energy runs, and you feel like it could go anywhere at any time. I’m a dozen listens into this album, and it’s still hard to predict exactly where it will land.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of Pere Ubu

One Man Drives While The Other Man Screams

Why I Hate Women

Read More

View all articles by Jennifer Kelly

Find out more about Fire

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.