Please welcome AD’s (now) semi-regular contributor, J. Neas, as he reflects on the seminal, if misunderstood, Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing LP. As I read this I was reminded of first hearing the band, as they opened for the Pixies in Atlanta (at the Centerstage) in the fall of 1991. I was barely 16, but even then knew I was witnessing something special. – AD
There really is nothing that can prepare you for that first time with a record like Dub Housing. Even now, nearly 30 years on, when popular music has had every opportunity to absorb and disseminate its influences, there really is nothing like it. With jazz, noise, populist rock, reggae, dub and even sea chanties represented across its compact sprawl of 35 minutes, Dub Housing is a brilliant record.
The first thing you have to deal with is David Thomas. There are people who don’t like various singer’s voices, but Thomas is another story entirely. Warbling, cycling between insanity, anger and lunacy, balancing it all with a carnival barker’s sense of showmanship, you don’t so much listen to Thomas as be assaulted by him. It’s the most easily identifiable feature of Pere Ubu’s sound and probably the most contentious as well.
If there is a song that best summarizes the bizarre ride that Dub Housing entails, it’s probably “Caligari’s Mirror.” Opening with a plodding bass line, random stabs of noise and keyboards and Thomas’ singing sounding as if it’s coming through several layers of water, the song is a certifiable mess until it suddenly congeals around a barely-held-together rock and roll chorus. “Hey, Hey, boozie sailors!” Thomas yells, a chorus echoing him from beneath.
Pere Ubu were studied in some serious music. Jazz rears its head in more than one composition; pop background vocals swim under some fairly surreal layers of noise. Opener “Navvy” actually starts off as if it’s going to be something more conventional, only to turn into a complete mess by the chorus. “Boy, that sounds swell!”
It’s easy to hear touchstones of the time period in the music, however. At times it’s the tribal beat of the Stooges or the chiming guitar of Television. At others its the late 60s jazz fusion of Miles Davis. The title track sounds like a bastard brother of The Specials‘ “Ghost Town”; “Ubu Dance Party” like Dick Clark’s nightmares, where American Bandstand has been overrun by degenerates and yelping noise freaks.
Then the album ends on an even less expected note – “Codex” is moody, brooding melancholy. With parts that sound like a horror soundtrack being played in a submarine, and others that sound like hellish chain-gang singing, the fact that Thomas’ singing becomes actually affecting is nothing short of a miracle. It could be that amidst the general insanity of most of the record, this creepy and disjointed song actually sounds like what would be a genuine emotional moment for Thomas. It’s a singular moment in an album full of singular moments. – j. neas
MP3: Pere Ubu :: Dub Housing
MP3: Pere Ubu :: Caligari’s Mirror
eMusic: Pere Ubu – Dub Housing