By any standards, the last band that you would expect to be still releasing new material in 2023 is Pere Ubu, yet here is their nineteenth long-player, ‘Trouble on Big Beat Street’. Angular, difficult, and not just apathetic to the mainstream but appalled by it, David Thomas and the six musicians accompanying him on these seventeen tracks could never be accused of playing it safe.
Now, I must come clean at this point. Myself and Mr Thomas are not the best of friends. Many years ago, writing for the fanzine, ‘Here Be Monsters’, I interviewed David Thomas in the wake of Pere Ubu’s back catalogue, and his own, being reissued in respective box sets. It was not a triumph. My recollection is that he begrudgingly confirmed his name and acknowledged that music existed – everything else was disputed, sniffed at or otherwise grumbled about. You could argue that this is precisely what you’d want from a man who used to call himself Crocus Behemoth, but it really was a very poor effort. However, this review is in no way intended as some form of revenge.
Despite regularly reviewing their albums, I would never suggest the everyday music listener should check out the collected works of The Residents – neither would I suggest Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa should have been as famous as Elvis. I would always recommend them to people with an interest in ‘challenging’ music, outsiders in popular culture and those looking to understand where their own favourite bands come from and likewise, I would do the same for Pere Ubu’s early albums. Their debut single ’30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and their first two albums, ‘The Modern Dance’ and ‘Dub Housing’ are all incredible, spine-chilling creations, and there are still great tracks to be found well into the 1990s. All of which paves the way for me to declare this new album as pretty awful.
One of the selling points of this release is that all but one of the tracks featured are the first, original take. I can certainly see how an antidote to highly polished auto-tune and pro-tools would be a nice alternative, but are we to just accept that we’re paying for something which even the creators might accept as ‘not their best’? It’s a very odd declaration and I think misguided. There’s a flatness to the sound (despite the many musicians) which isn’t the sound of a band letting light in on the magic – it’s the sound of a band disrespecting their audience. Electronic textures which could have been atmospheric feel plastic and horribly dated. This is the sound of complacent people wearing sensible hats sitting down and faffing around.
At its height, Pere Ubu was frightening – dark; angry and vicious. In their less successful moments, they were still incredibly inventive, expressive and often very funny (most of the time intentionally). Here, they are boring. Thomas’s voice remains a unique triple-reeded cackle but has reduced himself to cringe-worthy couplets that sound like Dr Seuss on the sauce. When, on ‘Pidgin Music’, he sounds like a man trapped in a wardrobe, it isn’t an act of subversive theatre, it’s the sound of a man trapped in a wardrobe.
Pere Ubu has gone through musical shifts before, most notably on their run of 90s albums, when they rolled up their sleeves and had a go at pop music. Though odd in the extreme and hated by many of their staunchest fans, it more often than not worked, even if an audience of kids on Roland Rat’s show might have been a little too hopeful. The combination of the arm-flapping barking from Thomas and a strong band held together by Eric Drew Feldman, the songs were loveable and happy in their own skin. Thomas namechecks Van Dyke Parks’ ‘Song Cycle’ album as an inspiration for ‘Trouble on Big Beat Street’, but it’s difficult to appreciate the nod, other than both albums have elements of “neither fish nor fowl”. It’s neither cabaret, theatre, blues nor even pantomime – it’s just what the band have never been – dull.
It says something when the track you’re looking forward to hearing the most is a cover of “Crazy Horses”. When it arrives it’s just that – a cover version. Imagine this is the last album Pere Ubu release and your final thought is, “The Osmonds‘ version was better than that”. I understand that David Thomas is not in the best of health and I’d love to be able to extoll the virtues of this album to you but I am neither a magician nor a liar. Buy all their older albums.
Buy ‘Trouble on Big Beat Street’ here