Pere Ubu is a fat toad. His wife, Mere Ubu, is a grotesque harpy. They are French . . .
Pere Ubu are (also) a band from Cleveland named after the protagonist of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 proto-surrealist/absurdist play Ubu Roi. Pere Ubu (the band) have issued 14 challenging and rewarding studio albums since their formation in 1975, the latest of which, “Long Live Pere Ubu!” features studio versions of songs from Bring Me The Head of Ubu Roi, a 2008 theatrical adaptation of Jarry’s original work written by Pere Ubu (the band) singer-songwriter-producer David Thomas, who also performed the role of Pere Ubu (the character), while the other members of Pere Ubu (the band) acted cast roles and danced the choreography. Got that?
Pere Ubu is the right hand man to Venceslas, King of Poland. Mere Ubu questions his ambition. Ubu kills the King, grabs the throne and loots the Kingdom.
There are certain things you expect to hear on a Pere Ubu album: EML synthesizer squeals and squiggles, rumbling rhythms dancing with jagged guitars, David Thomas’ very distinctive voice. These things are all delivered in generous, high-quality doses on “Long Live Pere Ubu!”, which also features some truly wonderful melodies jostling about in the clattering, churning cauldron of sounds that the band crafts so very well. The present incarnation of Pere Ubu is a mature and confident one, with bassist Michele Temple, synthesizer/theremin player Robert Wheeler and drummer Steve Mehlman all joining founding member Thomas in Ubu during a period of churn book-ending the release of 1993’s Raygun Suitcase. Guitarist Keith Moline began working with Thomas at around the same time as one of the Two Pale Boys, Thomas’ parallel group, though he did not join Ubu proper until 2002, making his recording debut with the band on 2006’s Why I Hate Women. While “Look-Back Bores” (TM: The Fall Online Forum) often express the opinion that works created by founding or formative members are somehow of greater significance than those made by latter day members, the core players on “Long Live Pere Ubu!” have been Ubus for a whole lot longer than any of the other earlier Ubus were, and they’ve reached a level of cohesion, control and confidence that only comes with time and persistence.
Double-crossed, Ubu’s lackey Cpt. Ordura enlists the Czar of Russia to get revenge: War!
There are certain things that you don’t expect to hear on a Pere Ubu album: lead voices other than David Thomas’ (although Michele Temple did take a lead on the last album, so that’s no completely unprecedented), skittery post-Aphex Twin electronica, and belching, among other items. But these things, too, appear on “Long Live Pere Ubu!”, and they add a whole new dimension of other-wordliness. While the first voice you hear on the album is Thomas’, intoning Jarry’s opening word of Ubu Roi, “Merdre!” (a word play on a vulgar French term, roughly translatable in English at “Shittr!,” which former guitarist Tom Herman once sang behind Thomas on the title track of Pere Ubu’s debut album, The Modern Dance), we don’t hear from him again until after a processed, alien-sounding voice warbles “Uuuuubuuuu” through martial album opener “Ubu Overture,” and then “Song of the Grocery Police” commences with Mere Ubu, voiced by Sarah Jane Morris, asking her husband: “Are you content with your lot?” Morris is a force of nature on this album, her expressive, dusky contralto a perfect foil for Thomas, and well-deserving her album cover credit. The best songs on the album find Morris (who once sang the low parts to Jimmy Somerville’s falsetto parts in The Communards) and Thomas engaged in animated musical dialog, their voices intertwining in one of the most fascinating and unique vocal ballets that I’ve heard since The Residents parted ways with Molly Harvey. These are not traditionally pretty voices, but they are magnificent in their power, nuance, and emotional impact. Other new elements provide a more visceral, gut-based punch, especially “Less Said The Better,” a beats and belching duet between guest laptop wizard Gagarin and Steve Mehlman. It really needs to be heard to be believed.
Ubu’s Polish Army is defeated. He flees. He falls asleep in a cave. Mere Ubu, forced out of Warsaw by Prince Buggerlas and an angry mob, seeks refuge in the same cave.
Thomas’ stage notes for the theatrical production of Bring Me The Head of Ubu Roi reference the pataphysical cave, which we see when we close our eyes: “Dimly seen, things are happening in the walls of the Cave: machinations of voodoo science, weird dimensions, inscrutable depths. At the mouth of the The Cave is a shadow play, grotesque and flat.” (Pataphysics was a term coined by Jarry to parody the theory and methods of modern science; he defined it as: “the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.”) In Thomas’ framing device, the Cave provides the depth and meaning behind the puppet show unfolding in front of it, and it is in the songs set in and around the Cave that “Long Live Pere Ubu!” reaches its greatest heights, especially on the atmospheric and dramatic Thomas-Morris duet “The Story So Far.” Pere Ubu’s music has always seemed to be about tapping inscrutable depths and weird dimensions, as traditional rock and roll instrumentation and methods are mutated, subverted, cut apart, and reassembled in new forms, that are other-wordly and multi-dimensional, though still clearly rooted in deep-seated, resonant cultural memes, moods and meanings. Pere Ubu’s work has been decribed as “avant garage,” a place where high-brow and low-brow concepts meet, shake hands, and get down to tearing up engines and spraying coolant all over the walls. This career-long proclivity seems to have reached a new pinnacle with “Long Live Pere Ubu!”, as some of the group’s most intellectually and creatively exotic, extravagant, and extreme music is deployed to tell the tale of a base, vile boor and his harridan spouse. The political spectrum is a horseshoe, where extreme left-wing behavior and extreme right-wing behavior manifest in essentially the same ways, indistinguishable from each other to the victims suffering under them. Perhaps art and culture are similar: the most extremely high-brow art and the most extremely low-brow art may well be indistinguishable from each other. I suspect that Pere Ubu’s members intuit that, and have thereby found the sweet spot where those distinctions become meaningless. It’s a jaw-dropping spot to sit, watch and listen.
Buggerlas drives them from the cave. They sail back to France.
A few years ago, Thomas sang a couple of traditional songs on Rogue’s Gallery, Hal Willner’s great collection of pirate songs and sea shanties, and the nautical conclusion of Ubu’s tale captures the queasy swagger and bawdy fun of those songs from the days of sailing ships. There’s probably a moral to be gleaned from the fact that Pere and Mere Ubu get to return home, largely unscathed, from their butcherous, treacherous, odious adventures abroad, but Thomas and company choose not to deliver it to us, and the open/non-ended conclusion of this epic work adds a delightful final twist of the psychic shiv between the listeners’ ears, as they leave the Pataphysical Cave and return to the normal world about them. Or to France. Or to Cleveland, the archetypal center of the Pere Ubu universe, which has also featured from its earliest days key collaborators Paul Hamann (engineering, at Suma Studios in Painesville, Ohio) and John Thompson (graphic design), both of whom return for “Long Live Pere Ubu!”, which is being released on Hearthan Records, also home to the group’s first singles. There’s a look, a sound, and a feel to Pere Ubu’s works that’s impossible to match, and I’m glad that with all the new elements they’ve added to their already impressive palette, they didn’t drop or alter those core concepts and conceits. “Long Live Pere Ubu!” is one of the most audacious pieces of new music that I’ve heard in ages. I can’t recommend enough that you visit Ubu Projex to order your own copy. (Mine arrived in a hand-written package with Steve Mehlman’s return address on it, like we were old buds swapping mix CD’s or something. You can’t get that personal touch ordering from Amazon, now, can you?)
Note: Italicized texts are taken from the liner notes of “Long Live Pere Ubu!”, copyright 2009 Ubu Projex/Hearthan Records.