Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu,
Carnival of Souls

Born in mid-‘70s Cleveland and led by one of rock’s few truly inimitable voices, David Thomas and Pere Ubu add to an already impressive discography with Carnival of Souls. Once celebrated as the originators of avant-garage, the group is still restless and bursting with ideas; if not operating at absolute peak level they aren’t that far away, confidently demonstrating strong form on their 18th studio album.

Herk Harvey directed many films, specifically industrial and educational works for the Lawrence, KS-based Centron Corporation, but he only helmed one fiction feature, the independently made ’62 cult essential that lends a title to Pere Ubu’s latest. In fact, the band created a live score for Harvey’s one-of-a-kind flick, complimenting it in performance on July 13th of 2013 as part of London’s East End Film Festival.

The music from that evening is not what’s on this record, though a number of Carnival of Souls’ songs did evolve from the show, which was Pere Ubu’s third realization of a live underscore for a mid-20th century American movie, the others being Jack Arnold’s ’53 B&W 3D entry It Came From Outer Space and Roger Corman’s ’63 color Ray Milland-starrer X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes.

Today, these modestly-budgeted sci-fi/horror pictures share generally positive critical reputations, but in the period leading up to Ubu’s emergence on the US punk radar screen they were most likely to be caught on television, often in late night programming riddled with commercials and edits and occasionally featuring a host; Cleveland’s was the subversively influential Ghoulardi.

Not having attended a screening by The Pere Ubu Film Group (I learned of the events a few years ago through Movie Morlocks, the blog of first-rate cable channel Turner Classic Movies), Thomas’ intention, or part of it anyway, seems to be to momentarily liberate these once neglected films from a purgatory of acceptance and esteem into a temporary milieu of active enjoyment.

Ubu’s enhancements are a major component in a tangled web of connections to other works. To elaborate, Carnival of Souls is marked as the second in an album cycle that began last year with Lady from Shanghai, an LP taking its title from Orson Welles’ superb film of ’47. Furthermore, the moniker of ’06’s Why I Hate Women was inspired by writing of Jim Thompson and the ’09 collab with Sarah Jane Morris Long Live Père Ubu, contains the audio from their adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Absurdist stage play of 1896, Ubu Roi.

As should be clear, Jarry gave the band its name. And “Heart of Darkness,” the flip side to Ubu’s debut single derived from Joseph Conrad’s enduringly troublesome masterpiece of 1899. Flash forward nearly forty years and Lady from Shanghai found them perfecting Thomas’ Chinese Whispers strategy on an LP of “dance music fixed,” its first track wielding a lyrical alteration of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” Suitably, Carnival of Souls retains aspects from its predecessor while exploring additional angles.

Opener “Golden Surf II” is one of a pair of cuts that place Stephen Hague (producer of New Order, Pet Shop Boys, and Ubu’s ’89 Cloudland, the nearest they’ve come to any kind of “pop” success) behind the mixing desk; it delivers pounding rock with large doses of synth and electronics, ending with a bang that could’ve easily worked as a closer.

The complex momentum of “Golden Surf II” leads us to the sinister melody and Steve Mehlman’s clamorous drum whacking at the start of “Drag the River.” In short order the mood calms but never really relaxes, its tension abetted by the throbbing rhythm, strands of Darryl Boon’s clarinet and spurts of increasingly assertive electronics.

Changing the atmosphere is “Visions of the Moon,” which begins quite accessibly, almost popish, as the licorice stick glides atop cyclical, bouncy keyboards. It’s not a new development by any means, for over a decade before Cloudland Ubu offered the gorgeous B-side “Heaven.” And yet distinct; incrementally the direction heads farther out; first Thomas’ mildly spoken words, next a military snare, and then waves of synthesizer splatter rising to overtake the tune.

Largely through the assured unwinding of Thomas in storytelling/monologue mode, “Dr Faustus” delves into fittingly cinematic territory, the leader’s approach lightly recalling Tom Waits, though the cadence is obviously different, and the way the words join the shrewdly abstracted sounds brings to mind Kurt Wagner on “What Was He Wearing?” from Lambchop’s ‘94 release I Hope You’re Sitting Down.

The contribution of electronic specialist Gagarin is especially worthwhile, as is Boon’s horn. From there the agreeable Beefheartian-pop of “Bus Station” is tied to Lady from Shanghai’s remodeling of extant motifs; here it’s a lyric sourced from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ biggest hit. Motoring along, it examines a solid art-groove as Thomas’ displays range and exudes control.

Maintaining the cinematic is “Road to Utah,” commencing with the instantly familiar Villain’s Theme that spans back to the silent film era, a tidbit garage mavens will quickly recognize from the initial seconds of The Sonics’ eternal doozy “Strychnine.” And since we’re on the subject, interspersed across Carnival of Souls’ vinyl incarnation are “The Strychnine Interludes,” five minute-long pieces conceived and executed by Ubu guitarist Keith Moliné.

His creations aren’t on the compact disc; instead the CD has the nifty and hefty culminating selection “Brother Ray.” “The Strychnine Interludes” weren’t included in the promo materials I received for review, so I can make no further comment upon them except to mention that buyers of the LP and CD do get a download corralling all the tracks.

“Road to Utah” serves as a spotlight for Pere Ubu as a tightly-knit and democratic unit; Moliné’s controlled feedback and Gagarin’s effects step to the fore early, but then Michele Temple arrives, her bass adding melodic weight as she and Mehlman keep the boat on course. Along the way, Robert Wheeler provides sturdy keyboard counterpoint to Gagarin’s psych-flavored organ, Moliné gets his licks in and Boon continues to breathe like a champ.

They achieve a mid-tempo simmer and as the cut reaches conclusion it briefly attains full-boil; Thomas navigates through the sound with a sturdy, experienced hand. “Carnival” follows and explicitly but subtly conjures the aura radiated by a cavalcade of attractions as the riff of foreboding from “Drag the River” fleetingly resurfaces. Thomas also references garage cornerstone “96 Tears” (notably covered by Ubu’s first-wave punk cohorts Suicide).

The slowly paced but methodically intense “Irene” is descended from “Goodnight Irene,” the oft-covered folk staple most associated with Leadbelly and the Weavers, and in a manner similar to the reappearance of a key motif in “Carnival” Thomas inserts the lyrics to Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” into the song’s midst. “Irene” also features Boon’s best moments on the disc, though throughout its duration Ubu’s newest member doesn’t lay a note wrong.

The expansive, multifaceted “Brother Ray” is described in the press notes as a prequel to novelist Nathanael West’s masterful The Day of the Locust. It’s an album’s worth of content packed into twelve unflaggingly stimulating minutes, Thomas broadening his narrative by inhabiting various characters as the band surround and propel his performance. Everyone’s in top form, Moliné in particular.

It’s a splendid finish to a fine record, and one hitting my lobes a bit harder than did Lady from Shanghai. And it’ll be interesting to hear where the group takes this cycle; what film will give the next one a title, and will they work up another underscore, or will they decide to redirect elsewhere, the influence of American-Lit on “Brother Ray” perhaps foreshadowing a change in tactics?

Carnival of Souls reinforces one thing; the supposition that Pere Ubu is “always different, always the same” is far from hyperbole.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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