Since 1975, Ohio’s Pere Ubu has been thrilling and confounding its devotees with its subversive deconstructions and amalgams of garage rock, reggae, and the avant-garde. Imagine a cross between Can and the Seeds, or if the 20th-century classical composer Edgard Varèse had a rock band. Singer David Thomas does not sing pretty, nor does he sing with any of the usual angst or bravado of most pop and rock ‘n’ roll vocalists — he yelps, gurgles, chants, and declaims like a daffy visionary or an insane nightclub comic who’s gleaned some Cosmic Truth from a bowl of hot and sour soup.
Shifting through the tastes in the underground and alterna-rock scenes, the majority of Pere Ubu’s twelve studio albums have remained true to their artistic vision, conjoining ominous, angular, and fractured melodies; harrowing found sounds; lo-fi analogue electronics; and a primal rock ‘n’ roll thump. There were of course some unfortunate exceptions, especially with their very few attempts to “go commercial,” such as the horridly lame Cloudland.
However, the consistently fine St. Arkansas sounds as if it might’ve come out after their landmark 1978 album Dub Housing — a cleaner, leaner sound; less cacophonous, but full of spidery electric guitar, wry, deadpan singing, and loping, haunted, and haunting rhythms. “Lisbon” has raw, subterranean-sounding electronics and disquieting singing (sample lyric: “My baby told me/she does not feel frisky”), and “Phone Home Jonah” has a wiry garage-punk surge. The real gem, though, is the bass-led, inexorable nine-minute closer “Dark,” with its forebodingly ironic chorus of “Oh the radio/AM radio/oh the radio/will set you free,” which Thomas sings like a man on a lengthy expedition who’s long ago forgotten the whys and the wherefores. In a time when “alternative rock” has become the new orthodoxy/dinosaur rock (take yer pick), Pere Ubu’s latest provides a real alternative to homogenized rockin’ sounds.