Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu,
Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés 1987-1991

Historical shorthand locates 1991 as the year rock normalcy exploded, but naturally the story isn’t so tidy. Pockets of unusualness were already afoot, and the recordings by Pere Ubu corralled in Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés 1987-1991 detail the post-punk/ art-rock cornerstone’s graceful and cogent horizontal move into the proximity of plain sight. The chronological third of four career-spanning box sets and the last of the bunch to see release, it houses ’88’s The Tenement Year, ’89’s Cloudland, ’91’s Worlds in Collision, and an LP of additional relevant material, The Lost Album. Another chapter in what’s significantly more than a standard retrospective, it’s out now on vinyl though Fire Records.

If the roots of the ’90’s upside-down musical narrative are firmly planted in events that transpired in the decade prior, then it’s fitting that the prime example presented by Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés 1987-1991 is the direct byproduct not of the Pere Ubu documented by The Architecture of Language 1979-1982, but of the gap between, and specifically ’87’s Blame the Messenger, the second LP from David Thomas & the Wooden Birds (the second of his solo outfits after David Thomas & the Pedestrians).

Along with the sui generis shaping presence of Thomas, The Tenement Year featured all the participants from Blame the Messenger, namely guitarist Jim Jones, bassist Tony Maimone, drummer-percussionist Chris Cutler, and crucially, the synthesizer of Allen Ravenstine. The story goes that after integrating older Ubu material into the Wooden Birds’ live set, the decision was made to contact drummer Scott Krauss, revive the Pere Ubu moniker, and record new material.

These efforts were not designed to reap the rewards of any reunion gravy-train (which in those days didn’t exist for bands residing on the cult fringe) but were sensibly intended to place fresh musical developments in their proper context. Bluntly, the Wooden Birds were sounding a lot like Ubu. Adding Krauss sweetened this circumstance.

But The Tenement Year is no retrenchment, instead pairing up well with Blame the Messenger as it foreshadowed the pop odyssey to come; right out of the gate, “Something’s Gotta Give” displayed a sturdy grasp of and comfort with heightened melodicism and rock power, but combined with Ubu’s identifiable penchant for reggae (which is also integral to “Talk to Me” and “The Rhythm King”), and of course the wonderful strangeness that is Ravenstine’s contribution, which is slathered all over the LP.

The Tenement Year is retroactively considered the start of an unlikely stylistic turn, and it certainly is that, but at the time it was essentially assessed as a maturation of what had occurred across the ’79-’82 run. Yes, there is tangible streamlining, like the undeniably pleasant use of melodeon in “Busman’s Honeymoon” and “Miss You” (something of a holdover from the accordion on Blame the Messenger), but there is also Thomas’ trombone blowing during “George Had a Hat”; it and “Universal Vibration” establish the strongest ties to Ubu’s art-rock past.

Even when things rhythmically unwind with (relatively) straightforward potency (“Talk to Me, “Say Goodbye,” “Dream the Moon”), the raw snaky edge of Jones’ guitar helps keep things deliciously off-kilter, as does the tendrils, stutters, splats, and whirs of Ravenstine, who comes as close as anybody to stealing the show from Thomas (not that upstaging was his intent). Close but no cigar, as the vocalist-leader is as distinctive as he ever was before, even when delving into the pop sensibility of “The Hollow Earth” and the superb “We Have the Technology,” which close one of Ubu’s strongest achievements.

That Thomas could effectively do pop should’ve surprised nobody familiar with early single “Heaven,” and yet Cloudland did deliver a shock, in part because The Tenement Year was so perceptibly unified with the band’s prior achievements. Cloudland breaks away from it; opener “Breath” is a power-pop tune, and not in a subversive, funhouse mirror way, but undisguisedly so, and “Race the Sky” continues the momentum. It’s understandable that longtime fans wouldn’t initially know what to make of it.

What takes shape after a few listens is that “Breath” is a damned good power-pop tune (so is the gist of “Bus Called Happiness”), and that Thomas’ personality doesn’t get lost in the transition; to the contrary, he really comes into focus on “Cry,” which is understandable given the closer resemblance to Ubu’s earlier stuff. But maybe one of Cloudland’s sweetest turns is that Thomas is so identifiably himself on the album’s hit single “Waiting for Mary” (and it did indeed hit, though it was Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, where it climbed to No. 6).

Those who didn’t instantaneously reject it possibly concluded that “Waiting for Mary” was a far better than average pop song of the quirky but substantial variety, and it fits into this album quite well. But there is much else to appreciate; “Why Go It Alone?” has backing vocals reminiscent of a ’60s folk-rock single (insert mention of the avant garage here), while “Ice Cream Truck,” “The Waltz,” and “Nevada!” offer instances of Thomas’ fondness for pop quotation.

As the record progresses, the Ubu imprint strengthens (“The Fire,” “The Waltz,” “Pushin’”) while establishing cohesiveness with the whole, but there are a few hinderances having less to do with individual songs than Cloudland’s overall conception. The first is the production by Stephen Hague, Paul Hamann and the band, which isn’t pop glossy but does have a reined in feel.

It’s a hinderance that’s admirable, the maneuver well-designed for the band’s dalliance with the pop sphere and set up to make an effective impression through cheap television speakers (“Waiting for Mary” was fleetingly rotated on MTV). Everyone involved seemingly understood that true pop needs to get its essence across in a variety of circumstances.

Think about it: in the ’60s (the golden era of multi-circumstance pop) a moment of brilliance like The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” (to use an example pertinent to Cloudland’s conception) had to get its essence across via both the living room hi-fi and the cheap transistor radio. For a period in the ’80s-’90s, the TV set took the transistor radio’s place (with moving images attached); today it’s digital files or streaming playlists heard through cheap earbuds. So, Cloudland’s engagement with pop reality is astute. It’s just that the glorious heft of Ubu before and since gets lessened in the endeavor.

Secondly, with the exceptions of “Lost Nation Road” and the pop standout “Monday Night” (which closes vinyl editions of Cloudland) Ravenstine is much less of a presence, which anticipates his “guest” role on Worlds in Collision. His place taken by Eric Drew Feldman (as Cutler exits), Thomas and crew register as emboldened by their recent good fortune, with the record’s opening pair of tracks, “Oh Catherine” and “I Hear They Smoke the BBQ” striking for how they divert from the “established” Ubu sound.

The main connection remains Thomas’ presence, which is no small thing. For “Turpentine!” and later into the record the highlight “Life of Riley,” things are more recognizably Ubu like, a factor that’s aided by the returning melodeon (as on The Tenement Year, played by John Kirkpatrick) that’s most prominent in the title track and nicely blended with Suzie Honeyman’s violin in “Over the Moon.”

However, for “Don’t Look Back” and “Playback” there’s a sincere effort to engage with an unfettered Alternative pop-rock sound, and it’s startling how well they work. Overall, the songs on Worlds in Collision are solid, from the choppy rock of “Mirror Man” to the soulful motions of “Cry Cry Cry” to the spirited choruses of the terrific “Nobody Knows.”

There are a couple lesser numbers, e.g. the spy-noirish “Goodnight Irene” and the adequate spaghetti western-laced closer “Winter in the Firelands,” but the production by Gil Norton is clean and big a la his work for the Pixies around this time. Slightly preferring Worlds in Collision to Cloudland might be a minority opinion, but that’s how this cookie crumbles.

Ubu hounds will already be versed in the contents of The Lost Album, a big hunk of it recorded as part of the intended but scrapped follow-up to Cloudland that ended up as singles and as bonus tracks on a later edition of Worlds of Collision. There is also a killer trib to Van Dyke Parks (“Wine Dark Sparks”), two cuts from the CD edition of Cloudland (“Fire” and “The Wire”) and two more (“The Postman Drove a Caddy” and “The B-side”) that were originally found on the “We Have the Technology” UK 12-inch.

Considering the different points of origin, it all holds together surprisingly well, though as it was all rendered by a stable lineup, the consistency should perhaps not be such a shock. If not conceived as a full-length record, the contents easily avoid coming off as a hodgepodge of stray leftovers. It’s a togetherness that’s reflected in the three albums it accompanies.

Way back when, the vast, rocky sonic terrain that constitutes Pere Ubu’s early discography was in large part a sealed-off place, most often entered (and this is a romantic notion, to be sure) through the guidance of older siblings, trusty aunts or uncles, benevolent record store clerks, the playlists of college DJs, and the writings found in rock mags and zines.

But for a three album stretch, David Thomas and his cohorts adapted their sound and made a conscious, good-faith attempt to engage with a pop sphere that had previously spurned them to the margins. Some have assessed that Ubu’s pop flirtation was for naught, but the results hold up well, in the case of The Tenement Year exceptionally so, and the band undertook it all without betraying core values.

Furthermore, in something of an about-face, Pere Ubu’s late ’80s-early ’90s work could be snatched up by the curious in Sam Goody’s and Record Towns across the land. For obscurantists, this may not seem like a fact worth celebrating, but who knows how many ears were turned on to the group’s existence (a few? Many? Somewhere in between, surely) through exposure spurred on by the above romanticism plus simple word of mouth and a heightened presence in the music press.

Over the decades, the band (and above all, the man in charge) has consistently demanded that Pere Ubu be met on its own terms, but Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés coheres into a fascinating and occasionally tremendous gesture of goodwill; its contents expanded the boundaries of what popular music can be.

The Tenement Year:


Worlds in Collision:

The Lost Album:

Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés 1987-1991:

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