Pere Ubu – St Arkansas

Pere Ubu
St Arkansas

Pere Ubu has held up surprisingly well for the past 11 albums. While it is likely that many a “hardcore” Ubu fan was turned off by the more poppy affairs of the late 80s and early 90s (particularly the straightforward Cloudland, even though it was an excellent album), the band has remained credible for its entire career. Though perhaps not as spastic as earlier works from the Pere Ubu catalog, St Arkansas sounds like the Pere Ubu that made the band so important. Sure, the album may not be as “artsy and abstract but still rocking and listenable” as The Modern Dance and Dub Housing, but it makes a worthwhile twelfth album. This far down the line, Pere Ubu has remained true to its sound.
But who cares about The Modern Dance and Dub Housing? It’s silly to compare this album to the band’s first two “classics.” Because, really, Pere Ubu’s entire career is rock-solid. Any avid follower will not be surprised to find that St Arkansas is a winner. After all, Pere Ubu is the most consistent band I can think of, especially considering they’ve been around since the mid-70s. I can imagine that most people who say that Pere Ubu went downhill after the first two albums have never even heard the other 10-ish albums. I mean, New Picnic Time was released in ’79. How could it be that much worse if it has the same lineup and if it was released in the year that followed Dub Housing‘s release? The fact is that it is on par with the previous two efforts. The remaining albums are strong as well. If 1998’s Pennsylvania was still in print then maybe music fans would buy it and realize that there is more to Pere Ubu than the first two albums. Fortunately, listeners are given a second chance with St Arkansas. If the fact that it features the original guitarist, Tom Herman, doesn’t sway you…
Off the bat I will say that there is really only one track that fails. Located at the album’s center, “Hell” is a little too sparse and uninteresting to hold my interest. The track is loosely held together by the pounding of a drum and by David Thomas talking instead of singing in his huggably high-pitched voice. An organ and EML synthesizer provide background atmosphere. Still, I favor a song that may not be as gripping as the rest over an ear-grater. And besides, I will argue that no Pere Ubu record has been without one song that left something to be desired. At least “Hell” contrasts with the buzzing synth-rocker “Lisbon” that follows. That song is no less than ominous.
“Steve” is another rocker that consists of a simple guitar lick with a bassline to match. Thomas sing-talks, “my brodda (brother) Danny / he walks in a zoo / he travels there daily / for something to do.” Of course the synths are as present and unpredictable as ever. For the record, St Arkansas plays with stereo sound, giving it a home-y feel. No instrument is ever drowned out by another. This makes for an album that is meant to be heard loud. “Phone Home Jonah” rocks for its two-minute and 39 second entirety. The bassline is to die for, and the guitars crash. And is that a horn that I hear in the background? The nine-minute album closer “Dark” works surprisingly well. The guitar, looming bass, and even lyrics are repetitious, but somehow it doesn’t matter. The song feels no more than five minutes in length. Thomas is as personal as ever as he croons, “All my friends don’t understand me / and my wife begins to fear / that I’ve lost some sense of balance / and I’ve lost a way to live.” Of course I don’t know Thomas personally, but I can sure understand his music.
So the latter half of the album is practically without flaw (“Where’s the truth” is a tad linear). The four songs before “Hell” are equally rewarding. The album opener, “The Fevered Dream of Hernando DeSoto,” is unrestrained. It improves with every listen as you are able to pick out more and more that is going on in the barrage of instruments. As the track abruptly comes to an end the blues-y “Slow Walking Daddy” kicks in. The mid-paced number relies on the (again) bass playing and the cabana-style organ. “Michele” is one of Pere Ubu’s odd whisper-over-noise messes that one cannot help but grow to love. Finally, “333” is a four-minute masterpiece. If you’ve never heard Pere Ubu and wish to sample a song from St Arkansas, the bass-, guitar-, and drum-heavy “333” is the song to get.
St Arkansas has an excellent sound. To my liking, the bass is always in the forefront. Like I always say, a bass needs to be heard. Then again, all the instruments tend to sound like they’re right next to the listener. Pere Ubu got it right from the start. But, more remarkably, they continue to do it right 27 years later. They even have that weird artwork thing going on. You know, all those colorful pictures with the bold fonts. Everything about the band clicks. I have confidence that it will continue to do so on upcoming releases, because we all know that there will be more to come.