Lady From Shanghai
You’d expect to be thrown off a bit when delving into a new Pere Ubu record; discordant, unsettling rock n’ roll has been the band’s stock in trade for over 30 years. But on their latest, Lady from Shanghai, they take it one step further. Pere Ubu describe this record as an attempt at dance music, and the most obvious change is their new emphasis on beats and squealing electronics. While not a total success, between the steady rhythms and some excellent bass work, Lady is the foot-tappingest record in the Ubu canon.
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Opener “Thanks” sets the tone simply enough. Accompanied by a narcotized krautrock beat, synth squeals, and clarinet stabs, frontman David Thomas repurposes the melody from disco hit “Ring My Bell” to the words “You can go to hell, ma belle.” “Free White” follows, with syncopated high hats, a propulsive bassline, and tinny guitar arpeggios. I imagine this is Ubu’s attempt at house music. In a similar vein, “Another One (Oh Maybellene)” riffs off of a mutated salsa rhythm until dissolving into a coda of Thomas mumbling over a single repeating guitar chord — a meeting of, if you will, Ubu’s new dance and its (former) “Modern Dance“. As the record progresses, the songs start to hew closer to previous Ubu efforts. “Musicians Are Scum” and “Lampshade Man” are both guitar-driven, in keeping with recent Ubu works like 2002′s St. Arkansas.
The last two tracks merit particular attention, both positive and negative. The penultimate offering on this platter, “414 Seconds” is the most arresting of the entire set — by far the standout track. One guitar alternates with the drums to hit the one and two beats, while a second guitar plays a snaking, angular riff on top. Over this, Thomas, as narrator, equivocates over whether he had merely dreamt he committed a horrible act or if the dream were just “a tawdry bit of self-deception, wherein I dream I only did the terrible thing that I did … in a dream.” At the end, the drums fall into a slowed motorik beat while the bass gets busier and busier, maintaining a hint of swing. It’s dark and paranoid; the arrangement instantly brings to mind the early Ubu classic “30 Seconds Over Tokyo.”
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Following this, closer “The Carpenter Sun” is the equivalent of a Thomas poem soundtracked by Black Dice or Sunburned Hand of Man — just random noise squalls accompanying Thomas’s incantations. This type of free-form noise experiment is generally hard to evaluate; one person’s noise is another’s beauty. But here, in context, the song fails. “414 Seconds” will leave you with chills; “The Carpenter Sun” just feels dissonant for the sake of being dissonant, and therefore unnecessary.
Lady shows Ubu trying something new, but maintains the band’s innate weirdness. The only real difference — the evidence the band is trying to move the dial — is that they sound like they’re trying to swing. Aside from that, all the murk and paranoid visions of Thomas feel as familiar and as dramatic as they have across the band’s discography. Lady is certainly not the first Ubu record I would recommend to a neophyte, but it’s got more groove than the others. Whether you dance to it or just put it on, alone, in your darkened room, is entirely up to you.