Cleveland-based band Pere Ubu formed in 1975 and after the release of their first album was immediately categorized as experimental rock. In the mid-late 70s, the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads were the edgy bands, but Pere Ubu’s music was decades ahead. Ubu’s first album, The Modern Dance, sounds similar to things that John Cale has released today, and compared to the Pistols and Talking Heads, Ubu’s music sounds so much stranger. Avant rock has eventually caught up—partially as a result of longstanding Ubu-member David Thomas’ work producing other experimental albums—but their sound has never been assimilated to the mainstream in the manner of the comparably experimental 70s bands.
Lady from Shanghai, even for its strangeness, is strange in ways that have become common. Today weirdness—especially unapproachable weirdness—isn’t enough to make an album worth listening to. That’s been done for a while now, and the best avant-garde music today, in order to move forward, maintains the well-trodden experimental approach but brings those sounds and ideas into contact with melody and accessible emotion. Of all of the then-famous 70s and 80s cutting-edge artists still around today, Swans has produced some of the most emotionally accessible albums without sacrificing their uniqueness. Their latest album, The Seer, even for its difficulty, has a clear and coherent progression. Scott Walker, on the other hand, has mastered the ability to shock his listeners, but he’s been less successful connecting with them. His sound-experiments are tied together by a similar tone, but the sum is never greater than its parts.
Pere Ubu falls in between the approaches of Swans and Walker. With Lady from Shanghai, Ubu takes their old sound and brings to it more modern and expected methods of production including heavy layering of different sounds and some non-synth instrumentation (e.g. clarinets). One particularly successful track is “Thanks,” which, on first listen, sounds puzzlingly familiar even though the only comprehensible lyrics are “You can go to hell.” As it turns out, the track is familiar: it’s an experimental interpretation and parody of Anita Ward’s classic “You Can Ring My Bell.” The parody and re-interpretation of the classic dance tune helps to found Ubu’s argument for possible new directions of dance music, a style that Ubu calls in the liner notes “an album of dance music fixed.” It’s a good move for Ubu, tying his music to something with an obvious purpose, even if it’s unclear just exactly what type of hoppin’ dance party would choose to play this album.
Avant-garde art doesn’t necessarily require creating ex nihilo, and Lady from Shanghai succeeds in part because Ubu has learned the virtues of re-interpretation. Most of the tracks can be tied to and are inspired by real-life phenomena, and, even when these are difficult to discern at first glance, Ubu explains many of these sources in the album’s accompanying book (e.g. one track’s production is based on the game Chinese Whispers, or as it is known in the United States, “telephone”). I’m much more willing to listen to the album because of its groundedness in elements that I can latch onto. There are moments of emotional bliss followed by long periods of feeling on edge, but there’s enough melody to make the moments of tension feel worthwhile.