Album Reviews: Pere Ubu – Pennsylvania/St Arkansas

Pere Ubu…post punk merry pranksters hailing from the industrial wastelands of Columbus, Ohio, who released a series of classic singles and a clutch of essential albums before imploding under a cloud of bubbly enforced glee and the departure of genius guitarist Tom Herman to work on oil rigs, only to resurface and resurrect themselves, declaring themselves originators of the “Avant-Garage” sound, and worming their way into and out of the American heartlands, weaving tales as surreal as Don Van Vliet’s musings. It’s no surprise then to find them taking a road trip through this vast landscape in the form of a concept album. Taking inspiration from Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness”, via their own tribute single when they were simply ‘looking into the heart of darkness’, back in 1998 they took the plunge, first journeying through Pennsylvania, then in 2002 Arkansas, releasing 2 conceptual albums reflecting the world like the mirrors on the front cover of 1982’s “Song of the Bailing Man”. After a 20 year absence Tom Herman returned to the fold for these 2 projects.

They really know how to do atmosphere. From 1978’s Dub Housing and “Sentimental Journey” right through to “Monday Morning” they capture the unease of a strange place easily as well as David Lynch. I’m surprised they haven’t crossed paths actually. After all, the industrial scapes of Eraserhead were meant to reflect the wastelands of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the lead character and lead singer David Thomas had an uncanny likeness, especially when Pere Ubu first hit these shores, wearing a black suit with thin tie and crazy curly black hair, bashing away at bits of metal and wailing unintelligibly. He’s got less hair these days but he’s lost none of the presence. He’s no more intelligible than he ever was but sometimes words defeat the object, and detract rather than enhance the stories being told… and that’s the thing – they are all stories. Stories of the American hinterland – scraps of paper, scribbled notes in a well worn notebook, small creased blurred pictures of an unidentifiable landscape. The contents of a tramp’s pocket. The things left behind in an abandoned house. The songs curl like smoke from the greasy remains of a long used hot plate at the back of an American diner that last saw a lick of paint back when I Love Lucy was all the rage.

‘Art exists to at once reveal secrets and to preserve them’ said Pere Ubu front man David Thomas, and these stories reveal everything and nothing about the half forgotten back door swathes of middle America and its inhabitants, from map reading travelogues to overheard snippets of conversation along the way. ‘All across “Pennsylvania,” people turn off the main roads and find themselves in towns whose names they can’t remember’. A lot of these songs contain a dark menacing quality, probably exacerbated by the fact that the band themselves look a little like the extremely dysfunctional family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where the local garage sells unspecified meat, and don’t stop for hitchhikers whatever you do. In other places you can feel the dust at the back of the throat as you step into a friendly roadside shack for a welcome break, Pennsylvania contains these juxtapositions, from the Beefheart/Cooder country knees-up of “Sad.txt” and “Fly’s Eye” to the Lynchian cinemascope of  “Woolie Bullie” and the nightmarish film noir of “Perfume”, with its wobbly auto tune lending itself very well to the wobbliness of the vocal.

Four years later came the second instalment St. Arkansas which takes an even stranger turn as they head further in to the darklands. The autotune wobble makes further headway tipping the vocals into a strange mania, a fever dream of memory and unsavoury characters flitting by on the roadside, and strange laughter in the night from a neon lit motel room. If Pennsylvania was Lynch’s The Straight Story, a fairly normal, though eccentric journey by daylight, then this is Lost Highway… surreal and unsettling and mysterious. ‘I drove the route and wrote down what the Road was telling me’ says David Thomas, the routes being Interstate 40 which runs the breadth of the US, and Route 49, the road where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. There’s even a song on here called “Hell” so the road seems to be keeping the same company.

These two classics have long deserved a vinyl release and finally it’s happening. The folks at Fire Records are re-issuing a lot of their back catalogue and these two records are a fine addition to their work, especially on lovely coloured vinyl, appropriately light and then dark blue. If you aren’t familiar with Pere Ubu then it’s really not a bad place to start. If however, like me, you’re a massive fan of their earlier work but don’t know the later stuff as well as you might then get these and play them to death. You will find they have lost none of their effervescence, their playfulness and their despair.

Both albums are due for release on 10th September via Fire Records.

Find out more on Pere Ubu’s official website

Review by Andrew Wood

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