Pere Ubu – One Man Drives While the Other Man Screams: Live, Vol. Two

Pere Ubu
One Man Drives While the Other Man Screams: Live, Vol. Two

Of all the bizarre sounds to emanate from this Cleveland art-punk ensemble in its almost 30-year career, none is more bizarre than those coming from singer David Thomas’ head. He sings like a man with no shame, or a child actually – a child just letting shit pour out of his mouth with no filter, no concern for anything except acting out. There’s a sense of freedom in the way Thomas sails into high, silly voices or in how he whinnies, whines, and yells his way through these loose, but forceful songs. His style has remained constant as the band has gone from riffy punk to drip-drop free form to cracked pop to wherever they are today, all periods spazzed out to some considerable degree. And though Thomas’ singular style may be the first indication that you are dealing with a bunch of arty malcontents, the Ubu lineup has always had room for more than just one crackpot, and more than just one method.

One Man Drives… is a collection of live recordings from the ’78-’81 era while the band was honing the first of its many incarnations. The only difference in personnel between the three shows represented here was the replacement of original guitarist Tom Herman by the more fractured Mayo Thompson (of Red Crayola fame) for the later performances. Otherwise this is the same nervy, elastic band that must’ve confounded Clevelanders back in the day: musical and anti-musical, engaging and irritating. Songs threaten to settle into a predictable form, and then comes the tortured synthesizers of Allen Ravenstine, perfectly presaging his future career as a commercial airline pilot with fizzy swoops and climbs, blissfully unconcerned with things such as actual musical notes. He is the second most pronounced element of weirdness in the Ubu family. Take a song like “Heaven,” which weds a slow, funky kind of New Orleans beat to a scratchy guitar part. Yet that nosy keyboard keeps swelling in between the choked-off chords, determined to add an unexpected texture.

Hell, that’s the tamest provocation here. Thomas’ unhinged braying and Ravenstine’s ear-tweaking synth on “Misery Goats” will certainly prompt a few more “WTF?”s from folks who could’ve sworn they heard the beginnings of a comprehensible song only two-and-a-half minutes ago.

Yeah, Pere Ubu’s nuts alright. But it’s in the tradition of other art-cranks like the Fall who take the skeleton of a song, keep some elements intact to ground it to this planet, and then let it spin off into a new, boggling sphere. Ubu is grounded by a driving rhythm section and lots of surfy, spiky guitar playing, which in itself makes for interesting listening prone to quirky twists and fleet-fingered playing. But a song like “Navvy” proves that it’s the most unorthodox elements of the band that make the biggest difference. The keyboard squeal is curiously alien, and David Thomas is fit to pop as he flails vocally. Best of all, between the solid bottom of the groove and the spasmodic vocal and keyboard purgings, music is created that’s both challenging and fun.

Pere Ubu’s idiosyncrasies do wear out their welcome on occasion (the lengthy “Rhapsody in Pink,” “Codex”), but this live document captures the band in a fervent and convincing temperament. Boundaries are pushed, musicians work hard for their pay, and a good time is had by all. On top of that, Pere Ubu proudly stumps for its unfashionable rust belt hometown in lyrical detail, liner notes, and evocative industrial photos, as they have done constantly since their inception. That’s a commendable strain of provincialism from a band that clearly looks beyond what’s in front of its face.