Pere Ubu – Pennsylvania – Review

Pere Ubu

Pennsylvania (Tim/Kerr)
by Nik Rainey  

Few bands are as legendary for musically evoking landlocked psychosis as Pere Ubu. Before punk technically existed, this gang of Cleveland reprobates collated Alfred Jarry, Ron Asheton, Mayo Thompson, and Fatty Arbuckle, dunked them in the petroleum-slickened waters of the Cuyahoga, and dragged the resulting mess back to the primordial garage to filter the results through the monoxidized consciousness of a clutch of overgrown children of the industrial age, eyes widened in wonderment, awe and horror. (For a master’s-level tutorial in their formative stages, track down DGC’s Datapanik in the Year Zero box set, then let me know what hours you’ll be out of the house so I can break in and steal it.) Ten years into their second jaunt around the perimeter of the vast pop wasteland, during which time they released a “comeback” album (1987’s The Tenement Year) leagues better than it had any right to be, several more releases full of mixed-media and mixed blessings, and a touching swell of support from the Ubuite constituency that rescued them from the black hole of major-label indifference, paid for a European tour and a Letterman appearance, and surely puzzled tax preparers everywhere (bailing out a marginal rock band led by a Jehovah’s Witness has to count as some kind of charitable donation, right?), Ubu returns with their most fascinating album in years,Pennsylvania. No longer beholden to either attempted big-pop compromise or untranslatable obscurantism, it rolls out of the avant-garage and hits the lost highway for an excursion as hypnotic and tangibly surreal as a cross-country drive through the endless interstates of darkest America. Driving, as the post-comma portion of the preceding sentence would imply, is the overriding metaphor at play here, presented with a sense of linearity and minor-key pensiveness well-suited to the subject: David Thomas remains as goofy/metaphysical as ever, cataloging the ordinary wonders of the long, unbroken stretches of flatland and the universe that surrounds it (upholding the major theme of the American New Wave, the uneasy juxtaposition of nature and the man-made), yet with his eyes firmly fixed on the middle distance: “Maybe it’s in the moonlight/ Or maybe it’s in the headlights,” as he sings on “Fly’s Eye.” The band responds in kind, with keyboard trills both jarring and uneasily balmy popping up like roadsigns along the way, slip-slide guitars gently hydroplaning while still keeping to the right side of the road, and percussive clatter like engine knock you can’t resist patting in time with on the steering column. As always, though, it’s Thomas’ vision that keeps this vehicle running, and his homespun philosophical musings are as clear-eyed as they’ve ever been. “Culture is a swampland of superstition, ignorance and abuse,” he murmurs. “Geography is a language they can’t screw up.” Here again, he proves his navigational skill through those secret areas of the lexical map.