Lady From Shanghai
Bryan Mack, January 22, 2013
Listen: “Feuksley, Ma’am, The Hearing”
A constant concern when listening to new albums from classic old bands is whether they can live up to old glories. Will they feebly attempt to jump onto new bandwagons and show their age? Will they steadfastly refuse to change and offer diminishing returns on their once-classic sound? Will they fire almost all of the original members and create a Christian rock concept album about Jesus returning to save rock and roll? When I heard that Pere Ubu’s new album, Lady From Shanghai, was supposed to be “dance music, fixed,” I listened with great trepidation. The first song, “Thanks,” opens with a minimal, sinister synth pulse, a pulsing bass line and Dave Thomas moaning, “You can go to hell, go to hell,” to the melody of Anita Ward’s immortal disco classic “Ring My Bell.” Thank god for Pere Ubu.
I’ll admit that, despite being an unabashed lover of their early music, I’ve not really digested any album after Dub Housing. In that time I gather they’ve made pop albums, Thomas has gotten into ballet, and they’ve faded frequently into obscurity only to occasionally release an album to their ever-dwindling fan base. I won’t guarantee that Lady From Shanghai will turn this trend around, but it’s one hell of an enjoyable listen regardless. The claim that it is dance music is hard to support, as this dark, murky mix of synths, often muddy drums and sharp guitars will not get many people moving. Instead, it does nothing so much as update the esoteric sounds of their magnum opus, Dub Housing, for the 21st century. On that album they created a darkly psychedelic swirl of post-punk, classic American tracks and Dave Thomas’ inimitable poetry. It has been musically referenced by acts such as Liars, Oneohtrix Point Never and Cold Cave, and fans of those acts will find themselves in a comfortable space with this one.
The pervasive atmosphere on the album is dark, foreboding and ominous. “Feuksley, Ma’am, The Hearing” takes a pounding drum beat, some minimal keys and a vocal sample so chopped and deformed as to be unintelligible and crafts a hauntingly great song out of it. “Mandy” features Thomas sounding like a creepy uncle, pleading to the titular character, “won’t you come out to play with me Mandy, won’t you come out to play,” as the band creates a sinister post-punk groove that doesn’t outstay its 7+ minute runtime. “Another One (Oh Maybelline)” sounds like a recording from an interrogation room, all muffled vocals, odd hisses and industrial scrapes. “The Road Trip of Bipasha Ahmed” inexplicably quotes Ray Jay in the midst of a groove from hell.
That said, Lady From Shanghai is too long. Towards the end a proliferation of 5+ minute tracks tends to drag things to a close. Also, the absolute insanity of the early albums that made them so perversely memorable is somewhat lacking. They play around with disco and soul lyrics and bizarre imagery (and “Musicians Are Scum” is one of the best song titles I have ever seen) but they don’t create anything as memorable or catchy as “Non-Alignment Pact” or “30 Seconds Over Tokyo.” But hey, they also didn’t make a rap/rock comeback album or add three DJs and a bunch of wubs; this is a good latter-day post-punk album and a highly enjoyable listen.