Release Date: January 08, 2013
“Black music is dead,” David Thomas informed a journalist in 2009. “It’s a rotten, stinking corpse.” The remarks by the frontman and sole original member of Pere Ubu, which were part of a more sweeping condemnation of contemporary pop’s lack of spine, may well have laid the foundation for Lady of Shanghai, the group’s 15th studio album since The Modern Dance industrialized punk rock in 1978. This time around, though, modern dance is the problem, rather than the solution: “It’s past time somebody puts an end to this abomination,” announces the band’s website with a barely stifled giggle. “Lady of Shanghai is an album of dance music fixed.” If so, Thomas and Co. have repaired it with all the electroconvulsive finesse and violent pleasure of a Tarantino revenge fantasy.
“You can go to hell, go to hell, my belle,” Thomas sings in “Thanks,” a crabby rewrite of Anita Ward’s oft-covered 1979 disco hit “Ring My Bell.” It’s a misheard variation of an overly familiar tune, a thick rock groove drenched in Robert Wheeler’s burbles, chirps, raspberries, ray-guns, bleats, farts, and other analog-synthesizer atonalities in the tradition of original Ubu synthesist Allen Ravenstine. And it’s pretty much what you’d expect from an American band named after a French literary character and led by a Clevelandian residing in England. Here and throughout, Shanghai swings in and out of focus, wobbling between industrial-strength rock (the Lynchian dance party of “Mandy,” the Beefheartian boogie of “Lampshade Man”) and abrasively expressionist passages of musique concrète like “The Carpenter Sun,” which says sayonara to listeners with six meterless minutes of alien dentistry and Thomas’s whispered allusions to “the size of the smell” in the rain.
Pere Ubu’s mostly nonironic fidelity to the revolutionary intent of rock’n’roll at its most fundamentally caustic (and erotic) paints the band into a corner from which it has no intention of escaping, even while critiquing that corner’s existence. Not only does Thomas channel a loathsome aging rock lothario in “Musicians Are Scum,” he adds a self-referential exclamation point by quoting the Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” the tick-tocking cuckoo clock at the root of all subsequent electronic rock. Like the film from which it borrows its title, Lady From Shanghai is an artfully awkward study in malaise. If pop music in general and dance music in particular is a nightmare from which David Thomas is trying to awaken, he’s reproduced that ambivalent dream state with remarkable accuracy.