Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu,
20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo

The last two years have seen Pere Ubu bringing thoughtful revision to a prodigious and highly influential back catalog; after touring in support of it to considerable success, the focus has returned to fresh material. The new album is 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, their first for the Cherry Red label, and it finds vocalist-leader David Thomas and the band in sharp, distinctive form. Adding another layer to the avant-garage institution’s discography, this tidy, frequently rocking, and wholly rewarding set is out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

On occasion, the longevity of highly acclaimed, once-groundbreaking acts will codify into touring-circuit predictability, the lineups rigid and the setlists devoid of new material, mainly for fear of lowering the energy level in the room. To the other extreme, sometimes the stature of long-loved acts gets devalued by the dubious persistence of one (or two) original members and whomever they manage to dredge up to assist, with the outcome a series of underwhelming studio efforts and endless tour dates.

Such is not the case with Pere Ubu. Yes, David Thomas is the band’s sole original member, but 20 Years in a Montana Missile is far from an “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall”-style situation. Bassist Michele Temple, drummer Steve Mehlman, and analog synth-Theremin man Robert Wheeler have been part of the group since the mid-’90s, while guitarist Keith Moliné joined the roster in 2005.

They, along with digital synthesist Gagarin and clarinetist Darryl Boon (members since ’07 and ’12, respectively) establish continuity as Ubu moves from its Chinese Whispers-Orange Period into a phase described as The Dark Room (quote Thomas: “Put a bunch of musicians in a lightless room and by feeling one small section of an unknown object have them figure what it must be.”). Bringing a new twist to this development is a three-guitar lineup, with Moliné joined by Gary Siperko (from Thomas’ other band Rocket from the Tombs) and Kristof Hahn (from Swans) on steel guitar.

Often, celebrated units are adversely affected by the outsized esteem for their past achievements, as the desire to extend from and not sully those high-water marks results in either pale imitations or creative paralysis. It’s a malady that Ubu has thus far avoided, in part due to a refreshing lack of grandiosity in the operation’s march forward; as an ad on the Ubu Projex website for Thomas’ Hearpen Records states, “we sell soul.”

That motto is also the title to a song from The Spades, which was Roky Erickson’s band just prior to the 13th Floor Elevators, and it underlines Ubu as a working band with a firm handle on the hard stuff and a disinterest in basking for too long in past glories. “We sell soul” also points out that Thomas and his crew are more interested in engaging with long-held inspirations, whether it’s low budget horror flicks, garage rock, or even disco hits: “Thanks,” the opener from 2013’s Lady from Shanghai, altered a lyric and retained the phrasing of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.”

But on 20 Years’ first track “Monkey Bizness,” it’s The Mothers of Invention. Late in the song Thomas repeats the line “brown shoes don’t make it,” a lyric some will recognize from the Mothers’ Absolutely Free, the words undisguised yet transformed as they’re combined with the band’s demonic psychedelic surf-punk motion. The whole illuminates the raw core of the group’s continued relevance and reinforces continuity with Ubu’s numerous earlier periods.

“Monkey Bizness” is as much of an opening attention grabber as “Non-Alignment Pact” was to ’77’s The Modern Dance, rocking just as forthrightly but with Thomas’ edgy weirdness honed and magnified. It’s a bit of a switch from the initial moments of the discs comprising the Chinese Whispers era, and given this rocking uptick, one could understandably assume the following track “Funk 49” to be a cover (more likely transmogrification) of fellow Ohioans the James Gang.

While Ubu’s press release for 20 Years includes Thomas’ assessment of the new album as the James Gang teaming up with Tangerine Dream (“or something like that”), “Funk 49” is related to the hard-rock radio riff beast in name only, instead exuding a high level of art-groove enhanced with splatters and drizzles of synth, wiggles, and wails of horn, and a sweet dose of the leader in his reliable spoken vocal mode.

Most of 20 Years’ tracks rely on concision for effect, and a few, like “Funk 49,” end a little too quickly, but “Prison of the Senses” is just right, its post-punk angularity blended with rising and falling washes of electronics that’re reminiscent of jet engines, or perhaps missiles, which provides a fitting precursor to “Toe to Toe,” the disc’s second full-throttle rocker, wherein Thomas details the life and mindset of a man having spent 20 years in the album title’s silo “toe to toe with Uncle Joe.”

If utilizing Cold War imagery, the song also feels connected to current events, though don’t misconstrue it as topical; that’s never been Thomas’ game. “The Healer” slows the pace, its climes appropriately described as pleasant (almost pretty, even) but with no decrease in the unconventional, while “Swampland” ratchets up the momentum and momentarily smooths out the idiosyncrasies as the guitars step to the fore. “Plan from Frag 9” is typically multilayered, even integrating handclaps, though Temple’s intermittent bass motif is a highlight.

“Howl” makes inroads into bluesy territory (Thomas does indeed howl during the track), but the gist is still garage-band lean, its attributes extending more overtly into “Red Eye Blues,” an up-tempo cut leading to a quick rave-up crescendo. From there, “Walking Again” takes on a somewhat ominous air, knotting up into a fine mess of guitar, synth, and wordless vocals, untangling and then repeating the process.

20 Years’ later tracks do extend a bit, with the increasingly grooving “I Can Still See” providing Mehlman with a showcase. It leads into the glistening, beautifully unusual “Cold Sweat”; simultaneously anthemic and meditative, it brings a welcome dose of the grand to the close of a record that barrels forth refreshingly free of premeditation and overcalculation, as David Thomas and Pere Ubu instead just make a wildly inventive record while holding true to the humble credo “we sell soul.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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