Sunday, January 20, 2013

Pere Ubu: Lady From Shanghai

[Update: I've corrected the David Thomas quote below, which I'd mangled slightly. I've also added a clarifying sentence and changed a word or two.]

"I think it's dangerous, Max, Videodrome... —Because it has something that you don't have, Max. It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous." Masha, speaking to Max Renn, in Videodrome.

"The truth hurts, just not bad enough." David Thomas, singing on "Lampshade Man"

I've always found the above quote from David Cronenberg's Videodrome to be the most significant line in the film. The film baffled me when I first saw it and it has continued to do so, as I suspect it was meant to do. I'm still trying to understand a lot of it. I'd say it's Cronenberg's most prophetic work, although I'm not sure "prophecy" was really what he was going for when he made it.

I mention the movie and the quote because I feel that one of the reasons that Pere Ubu remains important and relevant ("dangerous," in the parlance of Videodrome) nearly four decades after their inception, is because they have a philosophy. You have to have your feet firmly placed on a standpoint. Nothing of significance gets done without that. I do not claim to fully understand the creative process that has yielded the legacy of Pere Ubu. But I can surely appreciate it. And I'm still trying to understand it. Their new album caused me to reflect on this anew.

First off, this is an astonishing assemblage of musicians, and perhaps the band's most powerful lineup in their history. A blasphemous notion for many long-time listeners, but I think it's true. The core of this group has been together for approaching twenty years, the newest member having joined in 2006 (guitarist Keith Moliné), with David Thomas being the only original member at this point. Bassist Michele Temple and drummer Steve Mehlman play with a synchrony that is actually frightening. Moliné and synth player Robert Wheeler deliver chaotic, complex and intricate textures, soundman Gagarin dances in the digital, and David Thomas's voice remains one of the most peculiar and evocative instruments in all of music.

The sound is dry, astringent, almost desiccated at times. Thomas declares the album to be "dance music, fixed," which makes some sense. There's definitely an electronica dimension present here, though evoked indirectly, mostly. The presence of the EML synthesizer, which is one of the keynote sounds of any Ubu production is still here, but abetted by a wider palette of electronic colors. And the beats produced are calibrated to produce befuddlement on most club dance floors.

Pere Ubu abandoned the policy of printing lyrics in their albums a long time ago, though they can be read at their website. But in an unusual gesture (and concurrent with this release), Thomas published a small book, Chinese Whispers: The Making of Pere Ubu's Lady of Shanghai (cover shown below), which offers some insight into the band's methodology and recording practice, as well as compiling some of Thomas's other writings. I would not say it's necessary to read it to understand the album, but it makes for a useful and provocative addendum.

I tossed one of Thomas's quotes from the book onto a Facebook posting the other day and was immediately bombarded with a flurry of energetic (if not infuriated) responses. I'm contemplating using this in my teaching for that reason. In a manner somewhat akin to John Cage's writings, Thomas hammers down some outlying fenceposts, and provokes you to figure out your own position in relation to these. I think that's a healthy thing. The territory that Thomas marks off is one that few could reside in comfortably, but that's OK. "I'm on the outskirts of Nowhere," Thomas sings in "Mandy," indicating he's well aware of his remote address.

My friend Jay Batzner just tweeted on an unrelated matter, about striving to "sit with discomfort" rather than respond in a reflexive and unthoughtful manner. This is hard to do. And I think this is actually a neat summation of Pere Ubu's discipline. They've learned to sit with discomfort, and embrace that action. In describing the evolution of the track "Lampshade Man," Thomas was clearly not enthused with the germinal musical idea presented by Keith Moliné: "Working with the demo recording, which is the basis of what appears on the album, drained away my will to live as I listened to it over and over at Suma in the early stages of figuring out what to do with it." But Thomas remained unflinchingly present with the discomfort, and forged an astonishing track. The entire album works this way.

And Lady From Shanghai is that nearly-extinct creature, an honest-to-goodness ALBUM. I really find it hard to discuss individual tracks easily. I've been listening to it from beginning to end, and I really hear it as a single musical statement. Your own reaction may differ, but that's where I'm at. Pulling up to the outskirts of Nowhere.

Interesting place. I may want to stay here a spell.

Addendum: only in retrospect did it occur to me that all the various viewpoints that I'd shoe-horned into this posting were all produced by persons named David. I'm not sure that means anything. But it might.

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