Lady From Shanghai
, January 22nd, 2013 07:11
David Thomas wryly claims that Pere Ubu's 15th studio album, Lady From Shanghai, is "dance music fixed", the 'problem' being that dance music "encourages the body to move without permission." That this problem could in fact, be the entire point of dance music does not dissuade the Ubu singer from applying his refusenik tendencies to his own perceptions of the genre. Although it's tempting to imagine Thomas lurking backstage while some unnamed electro tune throbbed through the dressing room walls as he plotted some future revenge against the "tyranny of the four-by-four beat", the resulting recording isn't quite as radical a departure from the band's signature sound as the image may suggest. It is, however, Ubu's best record since 2002's St Arkansas and marks a return to the more electronic-oriented sound of the band's earlier records.
While the Ubu Projex website claims to be "irony-free", it's not difficult to discern a finely-honed degree of caustic wit at work behind Thomas' lyrical and musical stance. The opening track 'Thanks' brazenly lifts the vocal melody from 'Ring My Bell' with Thomas singing "You can go to hell" as the refrain. There are beats, chimes and electronic percolating bubbles, but this is the antithesis of good-time music, a queasy descent into entropy. 'Free White' similarly subverts a pop lyric trope by replacing "no-one will love you more" with "no-one will leave you more." Thomas continues to revel in his position as ogre-under-the-bridge (The Bridge perhaps in this case being an imaginary disco venue somewhere in Midwestern America) with one of the album's stand-out tracks: 'Musicians Are Scum' sees him hollering "Get in line baby, behind all the other people whose lives I have ruined" against a thrilling, descending bass line right out of 1978's The Modern Dance.
The album's lyrics are peppered with the kind of bitter resignation felt at the break-up of long-term relationships, with Thomas determined to learn to appreciate the aftertaste of love gone sour but also not being above a self-deprecating swipe at himself. This is not the pure inner-city alienation of Modern Dance, nor the bitter-sweet pop-culture images of albums such as Cloudland, Worlds In Collision and Story Of My Life, nor the words which pine for the lost images of Americana, the highways and the diners, as explored on Pennsylvania or St Arkansas.
Ubu's sound has always utilised the idea of synthesiser as 'weather', rather than an engine of melody, and a glance at the album's instrumentation reveals the presence of a further six analogue devices alongside the band's usual EML synth. These include the fantastically named Grendel Drone Commander and SNM Cacophonator II. Although guitars appear more sparingly in the mix than at any other time in the band's history, it's more of a repositioning of something that has always been there than an abrupt change of direction. This focus on the analogue-electronic sound gives the album great heft - despite the downbeat nature of the words and images, some of the sounds are downright exhilarating. An instrumental featuring cut-up voices is a motorik success, and the final track 'The Carpenter Sun' descends into the kind of oscillating sine-wave chaos only usually found on the most abstract and far-out of Sun Ra albums.
Lady From Shanghai is another excellent addition to the Pere Ubu discography, the sound of a band using comparatively limited means to explore a deceptively broad spectrum of sound, confusing the boundaries between pop and the avant-garde. As David Thomas once said... "Pere Ubu aren't an experimental band.... we know exactly what we're doing..."