Wednesday, November 09, 2005

This Week's Picks 2

In 1980 I attended a show at DC's first 930Club. The headliner of the sold-out show was the long-forgotten Human Switchboard, and the opening act was the producer of Human Switchboard's first ep, David Thomas, the heart, brains, and (some of his ex-bandmates would say) the asshole of Pere Ubu. Thomas, frumpy, grumpy, fat and sweating, stood defiantly on midstage and improvised free verse. No band, no music. Free verse. He was mercilessly taunted off the stage.

I had gone to see Thomas. Pere Ubu was and is one of my indispensible bands. They influenced, back in the late 1970s, my cultural politics as much as my musical tastes. Their unblinking examination of industrial America and the lives of industrial America's workers in combination with music riveting in its confrontational soundscape I found uncompromisingly original, urgent, anthemic, and energizing. The first five albums (collected now in the box set over on the left, *Datapanik in the Year Zero*) I think are essential listening both for their own sake but also to understand the wellspring from which flowed bands such as Fugazi and Dismemberment Plan and Guided by Voices.

In the late 80s, early 90s, Thomas led them in a much more melodic direction, and albums such as *Story of My Life* and *Worlds in Collision* and (especially) *Cloudland* show Thomas working on introducing pop elements into his music, focusing on the quirkiness of hooks, in essense exploring both what's fascinating and what's terrifying about the concept and marketing and manipulation of hooks. Though the songs are brighter and less menacing than the early work, they are more ominous in that they are concerned not as much with the industrial environment in which we live as how those who run that environment indoctrinate us into and innoculate us from that environment.

The later albums, starting with *Raygun Suitcase* and running through the latest, *St Arkansas,* is a melding of all that came before, and are remarkable cultural period pieces as well as totally original music. They sound like all that came before and totally new, and the inventions and complications and implications of technology's exponential growth and influence over our lives - as industrial America continues to decline - has given Thomas, the musician and poet, new impetus. Word is that they are now in studio recording their next album, tentatively titled *Electricity* and tentatively scheduled for release next September.

BTW: I hope to alternate Top Picks between new releases and my own idea of essential music. Though who knows? This is all new. BDR


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