9/10 Brian Staff review, 04 January 2013
One of the strangest and most challenging bands on the international experimental rock/post-punk circuit must be these Cleveland OH oddballs led by the larger-than-life David Thomas. Associated with such enigmatic freak units as Red K(C)rayola and Thomas and co’s previous incarnation Rocket From the Tombs, they’ve wandered an idiosyncratic and wayward path over the last thirty seven years, a career now spanning five decades in fact!
Avant-rock I believe they call it, maybe often pretentious twaddle to some, especially their early eighties efforts at subverting any pigeonholing after two cataclysmic, game changing classics that blew American rock into smithereens and smashed new oddly-shaped openings in the walls of the burgeoning underground for other miscreants and conceptual urchins to crawl through.
This surreal album had me both whooping and cringing on first listen but I believe, along with our Clint, that is their strongest, most consistent and enjoyable set for years. Opening with the awkward ‘Thanks’ which borrows its lyrical melody from the 1979 disco hit by Anita Ward ‘Ring My Bell’, you’re then thrust into ‘Free White’ which is a fine piece of stunted wistful new wave with an excellent bass groove, bubbling electronic ephemera and a glassy ascending guitar chime. Thomas’s curious whiny outsider’s voice is as distinctive as ever.
Preceding the headfuck that is ‘Mandy’ is a cracking piece of galloping electronica/garbled sampledelica with tentative bass and an hypnotic percussive floor. ‘Mandy’ itself is, to my ears, a modern Ubu masterpiece. I loathed it at first but that’s the whole thing with this long-running bunch of psychos, they always give you something to really chew on. In this instance we’ve a slight Pixies vibe (Ubu were a massive influence on Charles and co, remember) but with a more sinister electronic edge and then we’ve that pleading unsettling stalker’s warble that will either have you running for your life or rolling on the floor with mirth. Off-kilter and divisive, this song has crawled from the bowels of the freak zone to slither into your mind. Plenty of weirdo electronics laced throughout this beauty.
Racing along, as we have to here when the head Norman is flapping around slavishly to the ever decreasing strands of time an average Friday has to offer [To be fair to the head Norman, Brian was proper dawdling on this one. - ed], ‘And Then Nothing Happened’ begins as a piece of GBV-style quirk-rock with drowsy muddied vocals before collapsing into a pool of electronic gibbering and panning cymbals and chimes. ‘Musicians are Scum’ digs in next - a provocative title that I kind of enjoy as I’m the only person that works in this office who isn’t actually a musician of any ability or local notoriety. It’s another indescribably curious multi-segmented/avant-garde weird-pop piece with scratchy guitar flashes and much character that recalls Red Krayola or Thinking Fellers, the vocals being particularly creepy in places.
Pere Ubu virtually defined art rock in the seventies. ‘Lady From Shaghai’ is a very enjoyable example of what is a proper art-rock album. To some old ‘Ubesters’ it may seem a tad “meh”, yet to others it could be the complete re-invigoration/incarnation of a legendary rock band who always thought outside the box. Here, the box is still there but it’s got no sides and is having therapy in an attempt to come to terms with this personal crisis. I genuinely prefer this record to the majority of their ‘80s/’90s output as it appears consistent and challenging but within a reasonably accessible framework, spilling with cool ideas and bizarre hooks not to mention the fresh, lively and punchy production (you remember how some of their mid-period stuff has dated awfully). A genuine surprise.
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- Lady From Shanghai by Pere Ubu
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