Sunday, April 1, 2018

Don't Look Back: A Brief Review Of The New Pere Ubu Box From Fire Records

The remarkable series of Pere Ubu reissues from Fire Records has seen the label bring back into print one of the best back-catalogs in the entirety of post-punk. And if the albums on Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales 1987-1991, the next box-set, out on Friday on Fire Records, seem like less essential ones than other, earlier ones from the David Thomas-fronted band, the 4 discs here may very well upend that conventional wisdom, offering up proof that the vitality of Ubu continued well into those bleak years before Cobain made alternative music safe for more listeners.

Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales 1987-1991 is the last set to be released in this series, but the third in chronological terms, what with Elitism For The People 1975-1978, Architecture Of Language 1979-1982, and Drive, He Said 1994-2002 coming out in 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively. And if disc 1 of Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales 1987-1991, 1988's The Tenement Year, suggests a bridging of earlier, rougher post-punk styles with more accessible alt-rock ones, it's really 1989's Cloudland that does that work. Still, there's a lot to enjoy here on this 1988 album: the art-roar of "Something's Gotta Give"; the jazzy whirl of "George Had a Hat"; the gallop of "The Hollow Earth"; the plaintive balladry of "We Have The Technology" and so on.

Still, all my praise up there is sort of obliterated once a listener gets to breakthrough album Cloudland (1989). The record is such a pleasant surprise when you hear it again after all these years, that it's a wonder that it's not more often mentioned as a sort of crucial link in the leap from New Wave to college rock in general. "Race the Sun" positively soars, and "Love Love Love" is all peppy goodness, the very sort of thing one imagines being in short supply in David Thomas' world, while the band's big hit, "Waiting For Mary" is gloriously of the era and also the culmination of the rise of American post-punk. Famously mixed at Paisley Park, it's not that this long-player sounds like Prince, but that maybe some of the Purple One's joy when performing can be heard here in these grooves, the band sounding like they are having obvious fun. What a radical concept that was then when considering Pere Ubu!

Disc 3 of Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales 1987-1991 is taken up by 1991's Worlds in Collision, a record remembered perhaps more for its atrocious cover art than what's actually burned into the grooves. And now, having heard this for the first time in quite a few years, I feel criticisms of this one are kinda misplaced. "Don't Look Back" surges like The Pixies, a band who owed quite a lot to David Thomas and Pere Ubu, while "Mirror Man" and the title cut offer up jaunty alt-rock that still tickles the brain while causing the toes to tap. Elsewhere, "I Hear They Smoke The Barbecue" is one odd bit of business, part-Americana, and part-college rock stomper. The song remains surprisingly good, a tight offering from the Ubu that still provokes a curious thrill in a listener.

One would expect Disc 4 of Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales 1987-1991 to be 1992's Story of My Life, but, alas, it's given over to a Lost Album that is essentially a collection of demos. While one can wonder about the fate of that really lost album that would have nicely connected this set with Drive, He Said 1994-2002, it's better to just dive into what's here and enjoy it all. "Postman Drove a Caddy" is weird and vaguely like Tom Waits material circa Frank's Wild Years, while "Invisible Man" is more accessible. "Like a Rolling Stone" is, thankfully, not a cover of the Dylan song. What it is is another reminder of this band's bravery in throwing so many ideas at the wall. The group's sense of abandon at times saw the musicians pursue dead-ends, and at others vast highways leading into undiscovered countries. The soundscapes here, on rare cuts like "Wine Dark Sparks", are little bits of proof of the greatness of this band, and their endurance through multiple decades of trends that drew listeners in different directions.

And while so much of Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales 1987-1991 seems to indicate an era in which Pere Ubu were intent on going a bit more mainstream, I prefer to play these albums and hear Pere Ubu seize their chance to break through, and grab a whole new class of fans. Reminders of the consistent greatness of David Thomas and his evolving team of players, and testaments from an age when post-punk found itself morphing into alt-rock, the 3 studio albums on Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales 1987-1991 are all superb. And if the 4th disc is more of a curiosity, at least it's one from Pere Ubu when the band was still on fire, and still offering up the sound of something legitimately subversive and alternative, a respite from the mainstream.

Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales 1987-1991 by Pere Ubu is out on Friday via Fire Records.

More details on Pere Ubu via UbuProjex.com.

[Photo: Frank Ockenfels, 1991]