Tag Archive: the Pixies
This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.
Pere Ubu – “The Modern Dance” (Radar Records, 1978)
This month’s selection for Classics Critiqued is similar to April’s Classics Critiqued choice “Y” by The Pop Group. Like “Y”, “The Modern Dance” is an album that regularly receives critical praise (it has been featured in 24 different critics’ charts) but it and Pere Ubu still seem in the shadow of their more accessible peers. “The Modern Dance” was the début album by Pere Ubu who had formed out the ruminants of Cleveland, Ohio garage rock band Rocket from the Tombs in 1975. Ubu founders David Thomas (vocals) and Peter Laugher (guitar) (replaced by Tom Herman when he died of drug and alcohol abuse in 1977) were joined by Tim Wright (guitar/bass) (replaced by Tony Maimone (bass/piano) in 1977 after he left to form no-wavers DNA), Allen Ravenstine (synths) and Scott Krauss (drums) in the band’s original line-up. Together they “combined art and garage rock – synth whines, cut-up tape loops, atonal howling and chronic distortion”. They released their first three singles on Thomas’ Hearthen label between 1975 – 1977.
These quickly established the band as one that was difficult to pigeonhole. They were instantly “recruited to ‘punk’ then gathering momentum as journalists continued to talk up the CBGB scene while monitoring the early stirrings of insurrection in London.” All this despite the prog rock like structure of “30 Seconds Over Toyko” and Thomas’ assertion that “our ambitions were considerably different from the Sex Pistols”, he saw punk as puerile and destructive, “Pere Ubu didn’t want to piss on rock music; they wanted to contribute to it, help it mature as an art form”. By 1978 and the release of “The Modern Dance” the band were primed to show the world they weren’t part of the reductive punk movement but closely related to their early ’70s inspirations such as Roxy Music, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Neu!, The Stooges, Brian Eno and The Soft Machine as well as their current peers The Residents, Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, A Certain Ratio, Scritti Politti, The Pop Group and Public Image Ltd.
An important thing to remember when listening to Pere Ubu is that they formed in Cleveland, Ohio, which was in the ’70s a shadow of its former glory as a giant in the iron industry. This permeates the music with a strong sense of solid concrete and a metallic feel. The band described their music as “industrial folk” and like their peers in Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool their music spoke of the landscape in which they lived without actually referring to it lyrically. The harshness of Ravestine’s synths, the razor-sharp, mechanical riffs of new guitarist Tom Herman and the motorik rhythm section all added to this feeling of industrial buildings and decay as a back drop to their music. The band “waxed lyrical about the area in their first interviews: ore-loaded barge floating down the Cuyahoya; steel foundries pounding flat-out night and day; the glare from the blast furnaces bruising the night in hues of green and purple; belching chimneys and lattices of piping silhouetted against the sky.” “We thought it was magnificent … like going to an art museum or something” recollected singer David Thomas 20 years later.
The band saw music as multi dimensional and used Ravenstine’s synth and tape loops to invoke images in the mind’s eye. “I’ve always been into music more on a visual than aural level.” David Thomas said of Ravenstine in a NME interview in 1978, “He’s at the core of Ubu, I suppose. He’s a very unusual synthesizer player. He’s very purist with it, and he doesn’t even have a keyboard – instead he has a touch tone dial. He doesn’t want to combine anything musical with the synthesizer, because he feels – and rightly so, I think – that it’s a new instrument and should be treated as such.” Drummer Krauss agreed “He’d make a noise like a five-pound can with a whole bunch of bumble bees inside” said “Krauss then he’d change the wave form and it’d sound like a beach with a load of people on it. Ten seconds later, it’s flip to a freight car noise. The imagination-activating level was absolutely amazing.”
However, the music wasn’t all doom and industrial gloom. The Cleveland sense of humour came into play in the band’s lyrics. “Thomas is more of an ‘actor’ than a musician for whom surreal lyrics and student humour attenuate the dramatic force of the performance. Within the sound there is also a feeling of resigned fatalism, collective madness and rational fear.” Thomas’ vocals aren’t that a typical rock front man he “wails, yelps, gargles” and exploits the full gamut of human vocal sounds to enhance and underline the emotion he’s expressing. “Thomas never got “the modern dance”. The emotions were real, but everything else was a joke, just like the music which has a good laugh as well with, skipping along amid the destruction and anxiety as the singer asks to be humoured – “it was just a joke mon.”
All this combined to make an album that from the opener ‘Non Alignment Pact’’s “furious, deafening bacchanal of cryptic slogans, ungainly vocals, discordant strumming, electronic distortions and primordial pulsations”, through the title track’s sound “of primordial organic funk…which evokes the smoke of factory chimneys and the ordered structure of the production line”, the sweeping menacing winds of ‘Street Waves’ evoking the miasmic gust after a nuclear explosion, propelled at supersonic speed by a stop-start rhythm and invoking a prophetic vision of the apocalypse. Finally finishing with ‘Humor Me’’s jangly jesting undercut by the lyrics and atmosphere of despair.
For such a complex album that combined the world’s art and garage rock or as the band punningly put it “avant-garage”, it has gone on to be a direct or indirect influence on many bands and artists since. The most obvious of these would be the Pixies. Their sound, surreal lyrics and the appearance of singer Black Francis all echo Pere Ubu. It’s unlikely that the earliest works of TV on the Radio would have been the same without a trail having been blazed for them and modern underground rock bands like Liars and Oneida plough a similar furrow to that explored on “The Modern Dance”. Cult rocker Julian Cope also covered ‘Non Alignment Pact’, which seems to be an acknowledgement of the band’s importance by one of their post-punk peers. Like “Y” by The Pop Group mentioned at the start of this column, “The Modern Dance” tests the very boundaries of what music, particularly rock music, is capable of before it becomes a tuneless mess. It won’t be the easiest listen ever but “The Modern Dance” will reward those who stick with it and consume all of its intricacies.
You can listen to “The Modern Dance” here.
Wow, 2010 was quite a year for music and Sonic Fiction, personally I think it was a really great year for music of all types and blog managed to grow massively in the second half the year when we doubled our views from the first half of the year. Thanks to anyone who has taken a look, enjoyed and commented on our pieces. I have to say though that in some ways the end of the year was frustrating reading end of year polls and finding tons of reviews of albums I hadn’t listened to in my bookmarks. Still I’ve decided not to stress about as even some of my favourite journalists haven’t found the time to listen to everything.
In 2011 we hope that Sonic Fiction can continue to grow both in terms of quality of writing and views. We aim to continually improve but want to make this a more conscious effort from now on. We’ve launched a Twitter account which will enable us to link readers to articles, albums, playlists etc and provide the real interactivity that we want with Sonic Fiction. I think that when we started the blog, we were just relived that it was (finally) up and running but as time has gone on a set of aims has emerged. We really want to start debates about the points that we are making and we hope that with the help of Twitter and even better writing we can do so. If anyone has any suggestions of further ways we can encourage this please let us know. We also have a new bi-monthly column launching in February (when we’ll be one year old) that will reassess the perceived reputation of artist(s), a period of their career or a genre, we don’t have a title but if anyone has a suggestion just Twitter it or put it in the comments section.
Ok, so looking forward into the New Year here’s list of the various cultural happenings we are looking forward to this year:
There’s a trio of returning post-punk legends (two of them this month) in the shape of Gang of Four’s (first album in almost 16 years) ‘Content’, Wire release new album ‘Red Barked Tree’ and The Pop Group return with a new album later in the year, which will possibly feature The Bug, Keith Levene (ex Clash and Public Ltd guitarist), Micheal Rother (Neu!), Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) and DJ Assault or not.
There’s ‘Violet Cries’ the debut album by spooky, folky goth types Esben and The Witch, a band I saw a lot of potential in last year but failed to mention.
The explosive agit-prop of Asian Dub Foundation is always welcome in my flat and on the evidence of the title track so will new album ‘A History of Now’ out 7th February.
A week later Mogwai’s fearsome noise will pollute speakers the world over with new album ‘Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will’.
I always get excited about new PJ Harvey album but haven’t even listened to one since ‘Tales from the City, Tales from the Sea’, so we’ll have to see if ‘Let England Shake’ changes that.
There’s also the much anticipated collaboration/remix album by Gil-Scott Heron ‘We’re New Here’, though the description I read on FACT doesn’t fill me with confidence.
The Knife have hinted via their newsletter of new material emerging sometime in 2011 and in other Scandinavian news, Bjork has said that new music will be “ready in a few months”.
Finally Primal Scream celebrate the 20th anniversary of ‘Screamdelica’ with a tour and impressive looking 6 disc box set on March 7th. There will also be smaller edition more info as I get it.
New band tips
OoOOo – self titled debut E.P. was one of the top releases of 2010, next release much anticipated.
Balam Acab – debut E.P. ‘See Birds’ was one of the top releases of 2010, to be issued on CD in February.
Factory Floor – this industrial dance outfit’s early singles impressed, an album is being recorded.
Dels – Big Dada’s new hip-hop hope delivers debut album produced by Joe Goddard (Hot Chip) early in 2011.
Laurel Halo – made waves all over the internet last year and seems to have the talent to back up the hype!!
Yanqui – I was very impressed by this post-rock bands self titled debut E.P. and think there’s real potential for development into something bigger and better.
The Samps – another impressive self titled debut E.P. from these sample lovin’ duo, kind of like a sampled based Chin Chin cheesy yet irresistible.
Games – this Oneohtrix Point Never side project launched with their debut release ‘We Can Play’ on the super hip Hippos In Tanks late last year and it was packed with great tunes that promises their debut album might just be as good as Oneohtrix’s own material.
Blondes – synth based Brooklyn duo who after the success of their ‘Touched’ E.P. should release a debut full length that takes their ‘bedroom space disco’ sound even further out.
Win Win – a three way collaborative project comprising XXXchange (Spank Rock), Chris Delvin (of Baltimore DJ duo Delvin and Darko) and visual artist Ghostdad. Their self titled album is out on Vice on 15th February and features Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip), Naeem (Spank Rock) and Lizzie Bougatsos (Gang Gang Dance).
Floating Points Ensemble – the side project of producer Floating Points have already received critical acclaim for their spat of electronic jazz infected 2010 releases, a debut album on Ninja Tune awaits in 2011.
Holy Other – The haunting track ‘Yr Love’ leads to a potential album this year. The electronic music producer’s blend of gauzy vocals, 808 claps and swampy delays creates a highly emotional feel, which hopefully will materialise as a complete release.
White Car – Having released two EP’s last year this exciting industrial dance duo are currently putting the finishing touches to a début album to be released later this year.
Suuns (pronounced ‘Soons’) – This band’s début album ‘Zeroes QC’ manages the ineviable task of combining post-punk and post-rock influences into a cohesive, tuneful and confident and all without sounding like overblown and bloated rock.
Breton – This South London have been saddled with the unfortunate description of ‘post-punk dubstep’ but don’t let that put you off. It’s true that they combine influences from those genres but a quick visit to their MySpace will show that they transcend these distinct sounds to make their unique style. With only one 12″ the potential is definitely there and only time will tell if it can blossom further.
Albums we hope finally see the light of day in 2011
Missy Elliott’s long anticipated ‘The Block Party’, the second Madvillain album, the new Mouse on Mars album; a new album by audio-visual dons Coldcut is due and The Avalanches much, much, much anticipated follow to ‘Since I Left You’, yes I believe this is coming soon.
Wire – ‘Red Barked Tree’ (Pink Flag) 10th January
Wire return with their 12th album (and first without guitarist Bruce Gilbert), the bands own description makes it sound like business as usual but this no bad thing!!
Deerhoof – ‘Deerhoof vs Evil’ (Polyvinyl) 25th January
American indie-rockers return with their 11th album, following on from their great contribution to Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers: Alternative Takes on Congotronics’ late last year. You can hear tracks from the album via Soundcloud now and in each week leading up to release.
Gang of Four – ‘Content’ (Groneland) 25th January
Post-punk legends return with their first new album since reforming in 2004. Heavily published by the bands fund raising efforts which included giving away vials of blood to fans with the album. Should be interesting as the two tracks I’ve heard so far have gone from great to so-so.
Talib Kweli – ‘Gutter Rainbows’ (Talibra) 25th January
Talib’s first independent release after the fall out from ‘Eardrum’ lead to leaving Warner Bros. early signs are good and come in the form of the Ski Beatz produced ‘Cold Rain’. You can hear the track and read more details here.