Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu,
Drive, He Said 1994-2002

The latest archival box set from Pere Ubu documents the trailblazing Cleveland outfit’s move to a darker, thornier sound after a fitful major label-funded dalliance with commercial fortunes. Ray Gun Suitcase was the indie label return, followed by Pennsylvania’s surefootedness, and then new millennium entry point St. Arkansas; building upon prior form rather than approximating past glories, they shape Drive, He Said 1994-2002. Multidisc collections are often merely data dumps, but Fire Records’ Ubu boxes thrive on a spirit of revision, especially this volume. It’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital March 17.

The unusually information-rich website ubuprojex.com is even more distinguished by a refreshingly cogent point of view regarding the band’s activities and oeuvre. For one example, on a page devoted to the set under consideration here, Ubu’s leader and sole constant member David Thomas states: “there is no such thing as a ‘linear’ Ubu story or construction.”

The quote relates to the three discs making up the bulk of this box as they represent a Mark Twain-inspired pursuit of The Great American Novel in album form, but it applies just as easily to how Fire’s Ubu reissue program has jumped over the band’s output for the Fontana label, not out of dim retrospective esteem but simply due to the difficulty in securing rights for proper rerelease.

In good news, progress has been made on the Fontana-era volume Les Haricots Sont Pas Salé (likely to hit stores this autumn), but that’s not what’s here; instead, Drive, He Said comprises what many consider to be Ubu’s “comeback,” though this writer can attest that Ray Gun Suitcase’s emergence in 1995 was accompanied with as much mild curiosity as unbridled enthusiasm.

Chronology and linearity aren’t the same thing, and those using Fire’s reissues as doorways into Ubu discovery will get a much straighter stylistic course traveling directly from Architecture of Language 1979-1982 into the contents of this fourth installment’s early arrival, though it’s not as direct a progression as one might assume.

Although ’93’s The Story of My Life is in hindsight something of a transitional record, Ray Gun Suitcase retains only two members from that lineup, specifically Jim Jones and Scott Krauss. Some have tagged this disc (and this era) as a return to post-punk, but that descriptor has always been a loose fit for the unit’s productivity.

A better term is art-rock, or by extension, the band’s early nomenclature avant-garage. However, Ubu’s early work often emphasized a friction between the opposing sides of the hyphen; circa ’95, they rocked more forthrightly but without diminishing the overall art potency. The mutated spy-theme of “The Folly of Youth” is illustrative, with Michele Temple’s big rolling bass line and Scott Benedict’s muscular directness on drums providing the motion; meanwhile, Jones’ guitar alternates between melody and spastic bursts as Thomas displays his ability at speaking, singing, and ranting.

Perhaps the key development is Robert Wheeler stepping into the spot vacated by Allen Ravenstine after ’91’s Worlds in Collision. Rather than imitate his predecessor, he branches out from his approach on EML synth, bringing a sampler and Theremin into the equation and shining throughout “Electricity.” The inclination to rock continues through “Beach Boys,” with an equilibrium between catchiness and quirk achieved in the poppy “Turquoise Fins”; it’s in “Vacuum in My Head” that Thomas really steps to the fore, though in fact he’s propelled by the band’s persistently sharp playing.

The art-brooding deepens the resemblance to the work gathered on Architecture of Language, but “Memphis” is relatively straightforward melodic business with a killer backing vocal hook. The oscillating throb of “Three Things” further hones the blend of art and rock, the Theremin-imbued “Don’t Worry” brandishes a mechanical thrust with a bluesy coda, and “Red Sky” kicks up a propulsive racket as Thomas’ singing gets multitracked with a spoken echo.

Additional instrumentation broadens the landscape upon entering Ray Gun Suitcase’s final stretch, with “Montana” benefiting from Thomas’ melodeon and Garo Yellin’s electric cello. The latter’s contribution also colors “Memphis, “Beach Boys,” and the closing highpoint “Down by the River II,” while penultimate track “My Friend Is a Stooge for the Media Priests” features Thomas wailing on the musette.

To elaborate on the finale, it combines the leader’s pop songwriting prowess (think “Heaven”) with a structure mildly reminiscent of an early Cars tune and adds generous amounts of Yellin’s achy to frenzied bowing amid interjections of rock explosiveness. It caps a surprisingly effective musical reset, though folks who picked up a copy in ’95 might’ve noticed a few selections not mentioned above.

That’d be due to editing down for the LP format, with the tracks removed from the sequence helping shape this set’s fourth album Back Roads. Doing so produces numerous positive effects; foremost, Back Roads is unusually worthy as a bonus collection, not so much of extras (though unreleased stuff is included) but as a familiar chapter in the revision of a fertile timeframe. Notably, Ray Gun Suitcase and ’98’s Pennsylvania are seeing their third versions following Director’s Cut editions of both in 2005.

The cinematic terminology attached to the earlier edits encourages thoughts of Mr. Arkadin, Orson Welles’ 1955 film of multiple cuts, but with a crucial difference; where the movie’s numerous incarnations are the result of the production trouble that plagued the auteur’s post-Citizen Kane filmography, Ubu’s tenth and eleventh studio albums represent not just a regrouping but also commence a solidification that leads up to right now.

Current members Temple and Wheeler in place, Pennsylvania sees active participant Steve Mehlman fill the drum seat as founding guitarist Tom Herman returns to the studio after a break of 20 years. Tightening the lineup to exclude guests as the variety of instrumentation remains wide, the disc highlights the literary right out of the gate via Thomas’ spoken narrative in the hard-driving “Woolie Bullie.”

The characteristic applies to the vivid title of “Highwaterville,” the brief cut infusing inviting structure with strangeness as “SADTXT” settles into a swaying groove (kinda like that boat in Mr. Arkadin). “Urban Lifestyle” increases the velocity and accents it with synth splatter and keyboard spurts, while “Silent Spring” injects handclaps into a slowed down situation; perhaps it’s just the croak of the voice loop, but the track inspires Burroughsian thoughts, and it segues nicely into the collage-like audio salad of “Mr. Wheeler,” with Thomas taking a momentary backseat.

He bounces right back in the highly verbal “Muddy Waters”; other than organ on “Woolie Bullie,” the leader focuses on vocals here. In an interesting twist, a dab of near-synth-pop keyboard gets integrated into the increasingly heavy “Drive,” and a noir-like ambiance permeates the frustratingly brief “Indiangiver.”

From there, “Monday Morning” takes on a mildly art-funky disposition, reminding once again that Thomas and crew were formerly in the same neighborhood as Talking Heads, while the atmospheric “Perfume” reinforces the literary as the album nears the close; the spring-action, slide guitar and dive bar piano-tinged “Fly’s Eye” and the simultaneously soaring and stomping “Wheelhouse” lend dimension and a sturdy finale.

Still, Pennsylvania isn’t quite as strong as Ray Gun Suitcase, though both records benefit from Drive, He Said’s leaner LP edits. Interestingly, the best of the three gets reissued without significant alteration, though alongside its counterparts St. Arkansas has been remixed. Like Ray Gun, St. Arkansas is making its vinyl debut (Penn received an LP press in Russia in 2010).

The new mix is felt throughout the set, and it amplifies the boisterous aural weave of “The Fevered Dream of Hernando DeSoto.” Shifting gears, “Slow Walking Daddy” puts some slinky R&B moves through the Cleve-O cracked art ringer, and “Michele” slithers like a moody, multifaceted serpent. Next, Thomas’ voice rides atop the slippery, quick pace of “333,” and the late-night boho jazz-bar vibe of “Hell” rounds out side one.

In lesser hands “Hell” would annoyingly flounder or just downright fail, but Thomas’ veteran savvy evokes a sensibility without faltering into tropes. Furthermore, the band, which returns unchanged from Pennsylvania (but with a reduced role for Jim Jones, who sadly passed in 2008), scales back to just synth, piano, drums, and vox. The flip opens with the lurch, gnaw, and clatter of “Lisbon,” the cut enhanced by vivid imagery and faux-symphonic interjections.

St. Arkansas’ individual selections are frequently trim yet fully satisfying, with “Mr. Steve” and “Phone Home Jonah” stuffing bountiful content into jukebox single durations, the former accented by ’60s organ and the latter giving a brawny rocker a little punkish trimming. The contemplative pulse of “Where’s the Truth” fruitfully winds matters down, while the ritual-like chant-repetition of “Dark” stretches out to over nine minutes to deliver the LP a stinging weave of complexity for the finish.

St. Arkansas’ concision leaves nothing for Back Roads, though as implied above Drive, He Said possesses a rare level of cohesion for an expanded archival release; per ubuprojex.com, these LPs have been prepared “for posterity,” with the compact discs mirroring the vinyl sides exactly. Frankly, reissue programs almost never receive this level of non-ostentatious attention. Those desiring to build an Ubu wing onto their collection should snap up the Fire volumes before they’re gone. One could blow off both chronology and linearity and start right here.

Ray Gun Suitcase
A-

Pennsylvania
B+

St. Arkansas
A

Back Roads
B+

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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