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Pere Ubu
Architecture Of Language 1979-1982 Lottie Brazier , April 8th, 2016 08:23

Like many bands during the 70s, Pere Ubu arrived out of a novel palette of influences, non-musical as much as musical. As a group they sound just as interested in scatty, disordered sounding improvisation in jazz as much as were the bizarre ideas behind the creation of certain modernist literature. Points of reference include Miles Davis; playwright Alfred Jarry (their name is a direct reference to central character of the same name); "typical high-school stuff", as their singer David Thomas puts it, like Terry Riley's In C.

As a band Pere Ubu are pretty serious about their music in that they have undoubtedly theorised about what kind of band they should be before its conception. But they are equally silly. Just as Jarry took from 'schoolboy humour' and placed it in his own play, Pere Ubu's tracks contain many humorous surprises and vocal performances. This is most clear on this quartet of albums, released on the 4 LP boxset Architecture of Language 1979-1982, which can be easily blocked off as one segment of Pere Ubu's lifespan. With this boxset, Fire Records are following up last year's reissuing of The Modern Dance. Originally sent into the world on tiny failed Mercury Records imprint label Blank, The Modern Dance is probably their most famous release, but those included in the Architecture of Language are not to be overlooked in terms of merit. This boxset is compiled of four mid-career albums New Picnic Time, Architectural Salvage, The Art Of Walking, Song Of The Bailing Man and a compilation of alternative mixes and outtakes called Architectural Salvage. It is, without a doubt, a lot of Pere Ubu to be getting through.

New Picnic Time falls, on the timescale, after The Modern Dance and after their second album, Dub Housing. By this point, the band couldn't actually get their album out in the US, and had to go via English channels Chrysalis and Rough Trade. New Picnic Time, like its predecessors, still features Tom Herman on guitar and this album is particularly exciting for its guitar work. Herman flits impressively between a kind of surf-ish sound as he liberally bends his tremolo bar to jazzy scales to abrupt chords. How he manages to make something that sounds often on the brink of noise sound part of a structure is difficult to understand. At this stage, David Thomas is starting to push his voice that bit further, to parallel the noise of his band. This is likely scat influenced, making it good accompaniment to Herman, who seems frustrated that he has been saddled with guitar and is not Miles Davis on trumpet. Spacious track 'A Small Dark Cloud' reaps the most rewards out of being remastered, highlighting its experimentation in the use of recorded bird sounds and rasping bass which sounds even closer, almost imposing on the ears. Here Thomas' vocals might well be omitting from a Louisianan marsh, where indistinct figures speak in tongues on the steps of a waterlogged porch. New Picnic Time is most obviously the release that you'd buy this boxset for; if you're going on the strength of its production and musical experimentation alone.

The Art Of Walking is an interesting reissue for another reason; it has been rather overlooked in terms of Pere Ubu's back catalogue. If you were expecting Pere Ubu to become more experimental musically, to sway more towards their jazz influences, then you will not be excited by this album. Tom Herman is no longer around to provide his improvisational guitar riffs, and in this respect the album is lacking. Despite this though, The Art Of Walking is an underrated album; it isn't as challenging musically as The Modern Dance, Dub Housing or New Picnic Time.

But to focus on this would be looking in the wrong places for evolution of the band. David Thomas' vocals are extremely childlike on The Art Of Walking, as artists do when they attempt to mimic the highly vague, symbolic drawings of children. This is something very difficult for adults to achieve; it requires the ability to improvise, restraint in not preplanning the artwork beforehand, in not predestining the outcome of lines and strokes. Thomas manages to create this through a similar 'scat' on 'Misery Goats'; there is something very surprising and disturbing about how freely he squeals and shrieks his lines, very much like a child who is maybe reciting a nonsense poem or inventing a story. His vocal expression here has almost a nails-down-a-chalkboard effect; I've found myself laughing in disbelief at many tracks on this album. Laughter or comic disbelief is often the first reaction to something unexpected. Alfred Jarry himself vocally encouraged his 19th century audience to react to Ubu Roi's illogicality and 'schoolboy humour', so apparent in its language, with an equally childish laughter. It too was also met by its audience with repulsion, disbelief and ultimately a disinterest, as it could not be fitted easily alongside other works of its era. The fact that The Art of Walking has this ability too does not make it a weak album.

Also of note here are phrases that embody American life or work ethic, pushed to the brink via repetition on 'Birdies'; "I'm gonna have to pull myself up by my socks! I'm gonna have to grab myself up by the collar and shaaake!". Such phrases are repeated to the point of ridiculousness, which reveals both the strangeness of English language idioms and the individualistic sentiment that ultimately one can only rely on oneself. Think of a US presidential candidate for example, proclaiming something like this with embarrassing certainty to a crowd of eager, gullible voters. And then when you're used to these hysterical proclamations of very little depth, you get the kitsch Spanish guitar influenced 'Horses' thrown in towards the end, more familiar to The Monochrome Set or an él Records compilation than a Pere Ubu album. But that only makes this album more odd; just when the album begins to set out its themes and musical motifs, the listener is thrown.

The last LP on this boxset, Song Of A Bailing Man, shows The Art Of Walking to be a detour in the Pere Ubu story. That is, it would be more familiar to those holding onto Pere Ubu's sound from New Picnic Time or even Dub Housing. Tony Maimone's basslines play a bigger part on this record, making this LP more overtly poppy sounding than its predecessors. 'Use Of A Dog' sounds like a more American interpretation of those influences that Orange Juice had, with its sharp modish riffs coupled with Motown horn stabs. This might be the weakest album on in this boxset, however, especially when the band attempt to return to their improvisation. Without Herman's guitar driving this, the improvisation is not as interesting as on the earlier releases he played on. Sometimes the band introduce more electronic effects but this overall sounds hesitant, as if they are not as willing to experiment with this technology as they are with a rock band setup.

Architectural Salvage is an additional compilation of material to be found at the end of this boxset, assembled out of a few outtakes, alternate mixes and live recordings. It's not an essential part of Pere Ubu's catalogue. A lot of these outtakes do sound like demos, close enough to their originals that another version of them doesn't seem completely necessary; though 'Humour Me' on here does give insight into the tension and energy of their live performances.

It is tempting, as a passing fan of Pere Ubu, to take The Modern Dance as emblematic of the band's best output. However these releases show them to be more than just reducible to the stereotype of the angry, aloof post-punk band. Their influences are far-ranging, while trying to attempt an air of modesty about this; Thomas stresses that the band really are 'mainstream', that they are ultimately rock music. Pere Ubu are too playful to be lumped in with the likes of Joy Division and what has become known as UK post-punk, mainly for this reason. Although they may take influences from fringe artists, you get the impression that Pere Ubu have an ideal for art appreciation whereby anyone can enjoy the avant-garde, regardless of one's own cultural knowledge. They encourage us to stop associating avant-garde or experimental music with being mature or 'grown-up' or refined. They try to destroy its mystique. Even if fans of Pere Ubu take Pere Ubu seriously, it is clear that Pere Ubu aren't entirely serious about Pere Ubu. The quartet of LPs contained on Architecture Of Language highlight this more so than perhaps The Modern Dance and for this reason should not be left aside.