The fine folks at Fire Records have been doing God's work lately, maybe more so than they normally do. They have been cranking out, over the course of the last 2 years, a whole lot of Pere Ubu material starting with the first box set, Elitism For The People 1975-1978, in 2015, and then the second box set, Architecture Of Language 1979-1982, in 2016, and now yet another box set, Drive, He Said 1994-2002. Out on May 26, this collection is another essential release from both Pere Ubu and Fire Records and I'm happy to tell you why.
The 3 sets in this ongoing series chronicle the most important recordings of this most important of bands while skipping over their brief forays on a few major labels. The albums that were skipped from the years in-between the second and third box sets are certainly worth seeking out separately on your own; I wouldn't want to imply that that music didn't matter too. Still, and perhaps more importantly, the music compiled here on Drive, He Said 1994-2002 represents the most recent flourishing of the "Ubu genius" prior to 2013's fine Lady From Shanghai, their most recent comeback from the abyss. This box contains 3 albums proper and an album's worth of rarities from the years stated in the title (1994-2002) and it, in essence, looks at the band during a time when they were done with their big label forays and returning to their true roots as part of America's genuine underground music scene.
Disc 1 here is Ray Gun Suitcase. Originally released in 1995, the album contains some of the best music to be found in this box set. Aside from lead single "Folly Of Youth" there's the throbbing "Electricity", a distant cousin to the Beefheart number with the same name, which rattles the psyche with admirably-understated force, while the spry "Turquoise Fins" melds a sort of Fifties-style melodicism with thoroughly "out there, man!" musicianship. Elsewhere, the excellent "Beach Boys" approaches the big alt-rock mainstream with a big hook even as other cuts here ("Vacuum In My Head") confuse and perplex. "Don't Worry" is fairly accessible, as is the revved-up "Red Sky", but, on the whole, Ray Gun Suitcase serves as a reminder that the power of the Ubu blade was rarely dulled when flashed this close to the mainstream as it was on some of the band's mid-Nineties albums.
Pennsylvania from 1998 takes up disc 2 of Drive, He Said 1994-2002 and the album is, if not weaker than Ray Gun Suitcase, at least a little more daunting for newer fans. Sure, stuff like "Muddy Waters" and "Woolie Bullie" should make perfect sense for a generation weaned on Pixies sides but there's something here that keeps them from being so easy to digest as earlier numbers in this set. "Mr. Wheeler", for example, is as bracing and abrasive as cuts farther back in the Ubu vaults, and the unwieldy "Fly's Eye" unsettles still, proof that Ubu sacrificed none of their vision in this era.
Far more successful is 2002 St. Arkansas which takes up Disc 3 of Drive, He Said 1994-2002. An album that I gather a few fans probably missed upon its original release, the 15-year-old release holds up fairly well. Opener "The Fevered Dream Of Hernando DeSoto" charges with the kind of directness that's rare in the Ubu arsenal, all pounding drums and plaintive vocals from leader David Thomas, its force equaled by the near-surf rhythms of the sharp "333" later on the album. If "Phone Home Jonah" features the kind of brutal dissonance found on the earliest, best Ubu albums, the more languid "Hell" charms almost in the manner of an old Tom Waits number. If certain cuts here ("Slow Walking Daddy", for example) should have been easy propositions for a bunch of listeners broken in on Nick Cave and Malkmus albums in the early part of this century, then the epic closer "Dark" remains the difficult proposition here by upping the ante through a plunge back into the avant-garde bath. Dense, nearly impenetrable, and plodding, the number is the difficult side of Pere Ubu that never quite went away. No matter how dangerously close to this side of accessible David Thomas and Pere Ubu briefly got (mainly on those albums not chronicled by Fire Records on any of these box sets), the band retained the sort of fire of intent that kept their instincts sharp.
And that seems to be the central takeaway from Drive, He Said 1994-2002: the push-and-pull between making music that might gain them more fans in an era when alternative music was making serious in-roads and continuing to crank out some of the bravest work that any composers on these shores ever undertook in the post-punk era.
On Disc 4 of Drive, He Said 1994-2002 the bonus cuts kick in and they remain as boldly iconoclastic as the tracks earlier in this collection. "My Name Is Ellipsis" rattles with a near-free jazz sense of propulsion, while the disconsolate "Surfer Girl" shines thanks to one of David Thomas' best fairly-recent performances. Also included here is a soundboard mix of "Electricity" that adds a bit more menace to the cut, along with a fine live run at "SAD.TXT" from Pennsylvania.
Drive, He Said 1994-2002 is essential. I really can't overstate that. It is a nice summation of the work of this band in a challenging era. Fans of their earliest material will find lots to love here, and see how the band never really compromised their vision even as some level of acceptance loomed, while those who came to this act in the Eighties or Nineties will find this material valuable as well. One could say that this was the last big burst of Ubu creativity before 2013's new surge of activity but that's probably too unfair; Ubu have always inspired and while the material on Drive, He Said 1994-2002 is difficult in spots, it's still wildly important to any understanding of post-punk music in America, or a grasp at this group's rich history.
[Photos: top picture by David Ockenfels; bottom pic from Fire Records]