Pere Ubu - 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo

by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2017-09-29

After forty plus years of recording, amazingly the David Thomas led Pere Ubu sounds as relevant and iconoclastic today as they did in 1975.  With Thomas at age 64 in as fine a vocal form as ever, if you told me 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo was recorded right after The Modern Dance I wouldn’t have much reason not to believe you.  With The Modern Dance coming on the heels of the early punk movement, you would have expected any sense of danger Thomas could muster to have departed some time ago.  Weirdness I would expect in spades, dread I would not.  With Thomas as the only constant over the decades, the current lineup recalls the band’s early punk fueled power.  As Allen Ravenstine did before him, Robert Wheeler commands old school synths and the even older school sci-fi creepiness of a theremin to surround Thomas in a wash of noise that is cut only by a multi-guitar attack.  The exuberance of the band and Thomas in the early tracks here is astonishing at this stage of the game. 

Our first glimpse into Thomas’ art-garage freak show laboratory, on 'Monkey Bizness', is a horrific one indeed.  Sounding like music for a trailer to Stephen King’s movie adaptation of, It, Thomas in an uncharacteristically guttural growl, with industrial clank and rattling dentist drill hum as his accompaniment, invokes the unhinged blues of Captain Beefheart.  Thomas warbles about monkeys and clowns that bounce around and an even more fearful thought of “sex clowns”.  On paper the lyrics sound ridiculous, but the creepiness factor is so high the way it plays out it ends up much more in the disturbing category with the band in full onslaught by the end.  As with a good haunted house, you are compelled forward at this point whether you want to go or not.  The next track, ‘Funk 49’ ups the creep factor, with Thomas singing about his little bit of soul that he keeps in a cage and feeds parrot food.  Thomas sounds every bit as convincing as the young Iggy Pop (when Pop was warning the world that he was ‘Loose’), as he spits out “I keep it tame” - with the emphasis on the last word sounding anything but what the word implies.

As the master of ceremonies, Thomas keeps up with his unleashed band at every turn.  There’s really nothing he can’t handle here, whether reciting methodically and taunting the band with a craggy “C’mon” over guitar and synth skronk on ‘Prison of the Senses’ or crooning in synch with the lower key thrum of ‘The Healer’.  ‘Swampland’ is a punky take on Muddy Water’s 'Mannish Boy', with Thomas chanting “M-A-N, man, I’ll spell it out for you” as the band races forward with a manic blues that crashes to a close less than two minutes later.

The album does get a little more ponderous but no less interesting in the second half. From ‘Howl’ to ‘Walking Again’, a blues form is maintained with Thomas’ tongue in cheek bluster apparent in lines like, “I’m gonna howl for you baby” or the less certain but more angtsy  “C’mon baby, gonna be the best time you ever had, I guess, I dunno know.”  The album concludes with a mournful song dominated by decaying synth strains called ‘Cold Sweat’.  The somber notes recall Yo La Tengo’s cover of The Only Ones’ ‘The Whole of the Law’, but where the subject there had a “notion to swim the length of the ocean” to get to his love, here Thomas has “a notion to dive in an ocean” as he feels time running out and pleads “hold me close”.  The song has the feel of an eerie goodbye making for a perfect closer, but expect it won’t be the last we hear from him given the abundance of good ideas that are brought to bear here.      

I will admit to not paying a whole lot of attention to this band after the poppier leanings (and I am using that term liberally) of The Tenement Year and Cloudland, but I never should have counted them out.  I even saw Thomas solo once at the perfect, for him, setting of The Orange Show folk art installation in a downtrodden part of Houston.  It was muggy, as Houston always is, and Thomas had trouble with his fingers sliding on his accordion keys, but gamely kept at it - playing songs and telling shaggy dog stories.  Thomas is still a commanding presence to this day, undaunted by age, beauty, humidity, and whatever the current style of the day is supposed to be.  Given his invitation to open up the jars on his laboratory shelves and peer at what’s inside you know you shouldn’t do it, but you also know you will.  Each and every one of them and they will all contain grotesque wonders to behold.             

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