Album review: Pere Ubu, Lady from Shanghai (Fire)

Pere's persistence pays off with some gripping grooves

Andy Gill
Saturday 05 January 2013 01:00
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There's something admirable, even heroic, in the dogged persistence with which David Thomas continues to try and bend rock music to his own idea of avant-rock purity. He displays an almost monkish devotion to his art, but perhaps that is what it takes to keep chipping away at the coalface of experimental rock for nearly four decades, rewarded every now and then with an album as gripping and persuasive as Lady from Shanghai.

This is Pere Ubu's idea of dance music, which is to say it has a grimly satisfying momentum that becomes oddly addictive despite its spikier, more alienating tendencies. "Free White", for instance, was at one point during its gestation intended to sound like disco music playing in an adjoining apartment: it sounds like a deconstructing funk groove spinning slowly apart, allowing you to see inside the music, like an exploding-diagram moment in a CSI thriller. And "Thanks" wields a daintily lumbering blend of industrial and ethereal strains, behind a vocal melody recalling "Ring My Bell". It's dance music, but not as we know it, and more importantly, not performed as if dancing is a particularly admirable pastime.

There's always been an implicitly critical element to Ubu's music, and Thomas's attitude may be best summed up by the lyric to the relentless, trudging "Lampshade Man": "They say the truth hurts – just not enough!".

The classic Ubu forces of abstract synth noise, spiky guitar riffs and propulsive swagger-riffs are ably wielded throughout, while the few sampled elements are used judiciously, with a cut-up of Thomas Edison warbling "Mary Had a Little Lamb" through "Feuksley Ma'am, The Hearing", and the Chambers Brothers' classic cowbell riff from "Time Has Come Today" percolating through the astringent guitar chords of "Musicians Are Scum".

It's an absorbing, sometimes harrowing ride that concludes, in "The Carpenter Sun", with an abstract computer/synth piece reflecting the hall of mirrors finale to the Orson Welles film after which the album's named, supporting a suitably mysterious, noirish narrative.

Download: Thanks; Free White; Mandy; 414 Seconds; Musicians Are Scum

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