After 35 years, Pere Ubu still wages war on modern art 

Their Modern Dance

Their Modern Dance

"Musicians are scum / I thought I'd made this clear from day one."

It's a provocative statement coming from a man with a music career that's spanned four decades, but if you've picked up the latest Pere Ubu record Lady From Shanghai — or if you've picked up any Pere Ubu record, really — you've pretty much signed up for provocation. In the annals of American music there are few artists as consistently challenging, as belligerently progressive as Pere Ubu frontman/ringleader/instigator David Thomas. From his vocal tone to his philosophical tone, Thomas is not trying to catch flies with honey. So if you made it halfway through Lady, all the way to the song "Musicians Are Scum," without having your sensibilities offended — or at the very least poked in the eye — you are either impervious to art or a total wack job. But probably both.

Drop the needle at any point in Pere Ubu's massive catalog — be it 1978's The Modern Dance or 1995's Ray Gun Suitcase — and you're bound to find transgression, deconstruction and a vicious drubbing of what you thought rock 'n' roll could be. But you'll also hear inspirations for entire genres in single passages, or for entire scenes and cultures in single tracks — for a band that has always taken an antagonistic approach to pop music, they've had a profound influence on its evolution. The first shrill, piercing tones of The Modern Dance's "Non-Alignment Pact" predict the challenging, noisy hardcore of Flipper, the angular aggression of Gang of Four, the catchy chaos of Archers of Loaf, the entire early-Aughts dance-rock explosion and a thousand other artists who staked their claim on the fusion of art and rock. And this at a time when most of their peers were still rewriting 1910 Fruitgum Company songs and butchering Chuck Berry riffs.

By the time that The Modern Dance hit shelves, Thomas had already journeyed into the heart of darkness that would come to be known as punk and moved on — he had pioneered the loud and brutish sound with Cleveland's massively influential Rocket From the Tombs and kicked-started punk's DIY ethos by self-releasing the earliest Ubu singles. By the "official" start of the punk movement, Pere Ubu had already earned their post- prefix and never looked back. Even during the late '80s, when the Ubu aesthetic and popular tastes would be at their most parallel, Thomas and crew were still fucking weirdos. Cloudland's "Love Love Love" is about as close as they ever got to writing pure ear candy, but it's still filled with strange synth pads and an amphetamine-fueled motorik beat that invokes David Byrne trying to seduce Giorgio Moroder. (Also, oddly, "Love Love Love" is an almost straight-up blueprint for Fatboy Slim's big-beat breakout single "Going out of My Head." Coincidence? Maybe, but ol' Fatboy was always good at swiping from the best.)

Once the '90s rolled around and the Alternative Nation — a nation that was arguably founded in part by Pere Ubu — had hit ramming speed, Ubu's dalliances with pop were over, and their course into the outer limits of music was reset. When the prevailing winds were blowing with slacker self-loathing, Thomas was setting his sights on the outside world, taking aim at the reality of the Clinton Era and the festering boils beneath the freshly pressed flannel shirt of the '90s. With songs like 1995's "My Friend Is a Stooge for the Media Priests," Ubu brings a level of skronk and discord unheard of since Iggy Pop was still stuck in the Funhouse, and they sound far more punk than the punk-revivalist bands a quarter their age. When the rest of the culture was setting their pedals to grunge, Pere Ubu was creating bizarre concrete soundscapes like "Ray Gun Suitcase" and accordion dirges like "Montana," cementing their status as the alternative to the alternative.

In 2013, no one should be shocked that David Thomas is going to make a statement like "musicians are scum" — the man has been kicking music in the groin since Day 1. The fact that he opens Lady From Shanghai with a warped and contemptuous bastardization of Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell" should be a surprise to nobody, nor should the fact that when he sings, "It's a wonderful world, it's a beautiful thing" on "Free White" it's probably a disingenuous statement. What may be a surprise, however, is that even after 35 years of cultural dissent, Thomas and Pere Ubu's disdain for the prevailing winds is still vital and engaging. And in an age when Dust Bowl costumes and flat-assed twerking pass for art, we might need Pere Ubu's all-out assault on art more than ever.

Email Music@nashvillescene.com.

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