Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas’ solo albums 1981-1987

Yiki TIki

If I was going to try and persuade someone to take an interest in the work of David Thomas in the 1980s, ‘Yiki Tiki’ is probably close to the last song I would choose to demonstrate Thomas’ value as an artist… and I’m of the opinion that he’s one of the most interesting musicians of the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

Like the symbiosis between ‘Crush This Horn pt. 2’ and ‘Confuse Did’ (possibly an attempt by Thomas to pen lyrics to bring some coherence to a fairly disparate group of tracks from different times and places) ‘Yiki Tiki’ is in many respects a part two to ‘I Think the Birds Are Good Ideas’, which precedes it on Sound of the Sand. It is a crib, or a critique perhaps, of that track, and also references much of Thomas’ previous Mundane-era work, beginning with the Garrison Keiloresque elements of New Picnic Time.

New Picnic Time begins with a song called ‘The Fabulous Sequel’, with the opening line ‘It’s me again!’ ‘Yiki Tiki’ is somewhat similar – not musically, but in the way it begins by urging the listener to regard the song as a new instalment in a series, and to remember earlier works: ‘Remember the birds?/Remember the shoes I wore?/Remember the things I said before?/I think ‘em again!’

It is of course perverse to ask the listener to ‘remember the birds’, since we’ve just heard a track on exactly that subject, opining that they are ‘good ideas’. This is all part and parcel of Thomas’ push, carried through on the Pere Ubu album Art of Walking, to toast ‘the small things’ (on ‘Go’) and to also insist, at every available opportunity that such things are stupendously important (‘the birdies are singing/the birdies are saying what I want to say… the foot goes up and the foot goes down’ and so on). The bird theme, Thomas says on the ubuprojex ‘FAQ’ page, ‘evolved out of perversity:

Somewhere along the line I wrote a song that had birds in it. And then by pure coincidence, another. Some critic asked, "Why all these songs about birds?" And I said to myself, "You think that's alot of songs about birds?!? I'll show you alot of songs about birds!" So, for awhile, I stuck birds in everywhere I could. (http://www.ubuprojex.com/faqs/boxfaq.html)

For reasons mentioned above, I think this is a little ingenuous of Thomas, but that’s probably our respective prerogatives. I personally feel that after two dark, almost histrionic albums (The Modern Dance and Dub Housing, of course) he decided to take, or found himself taking, a completely different direction into an area virtually untapped (Jonathan Richman is the only ‘new wave’ artist I can think of who took a lyrically comparable direction, though no doubt there were some others). Where could you go after such dark work but into the lite? And, as mentioned, there’s the religious angle; there’s every chance that someone in the Jehovah’s Witnesses suggested to Thomas, or he figured out himself, that the church wouldn’t look too fondly on such sinister stuff as was found on Dub Housing; better to be songs about nothing, or songs about the small things. ‘Yiki Tiki’ takes this to the limit; it relegates everything to Thomas’ ‘thoughts’ and cheeky actions; there’s no more to it than that. The band respond with similar comical hi jinx.

It’s hard to imagine that this calculated shallowness wasn’t a part of Thomas’ religious conversion; if it’s true (as Rick Moody reports) that Tom Herman quit the band after hearing what Thomas did to a tune of his, turning it into a religious hallelujah, then the religion was certainly decimating the band. The ways in which Pere Ubu slowly evolved from a genuine, five or more-piece band into what many regarded as a backing band for David Thomas are pretty standard (parallel universe Alice Cooper, really, except Thomas didn’t start insisting he was Pere Ubu). An interview with Scott Krauss about the period between the demise of the first incarnation of PU and the rise of David Thomas as a solo artist is quite informative, though also quite confusing. Krauss says:

[T]hings were starting to get really strange, and Rough Trade decided they wanted to make a solo career out of David…We were doing this tour of Europe, and we had 3 days off in London. I thought we were going to book some studio time and record some new material. The closer it got to London, though, the less talk there was about this happening. So when we were about 2 days out from London, I said, "So what's happening with this London recording thing?" Silence. I had just assumed we had it under control. I said, "Are we not doing this?" And Allen said, "Well, actually, Mayo has invited me out to his cottage and I'm going to go there and take a break for 3 days." Tony said he was going to go hang out with some friends. Then there was a message that somebody asked me to give to David, saying that his 8-Track machine was in his hotel room. And I said, "David, what 8-Track machine?" And he told me he was going to do some spoken word recording in his hotel room. So I said, "If Mayo and Allen are going to be gone, and you're going to be busy, what am I supposed to be doing here?"... And then when he did his first solo album, they didn't want anybody from Pere Ubu on it. It was pretty obvious that they wanted David to be a solo act without any Pere Ubu people. (http://www.nadir-novelties.net/ubu/krauss.htm)         

This is interesting, to say the least. Krauss plays on one track on Sound of the Sand, of which more later. Anton Fier was a member of Pere Ubu and he’s all over Sound of the Sand, but the album he’s on was presumably recorded after most of (or all of) Sound of the Sand. In short, I suppose the most we can say is that Sound of the Sand was recorded at different times, and quite possibly it bundles a few tracks from earlier times to augment the main recording session for this album.


What perplexes me is the notion that David Thomas as a solo artist is worth more financially or even artistically than Pere Ubu, or that Mayo Thompson (for instance) would be complicit in such a scenario (not because Mayo’s my hero, though he is, but because I can’t see a commercial advantage!). Could be that this was an elaborate plot to eject Krauss from the band, for reasons unclear (and reading his testimony is the worst way to figure this out)?  Certainly, he was the missing person from the last Pere Ubu album in the initial iteration…

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas’ solo albums 1981-1987


I recently picked up my copy of David Thomas’ Monster, his 5-CD collection of five albums from the 1980s between Pere Ubu’s breakup and reformation (and another disc of live material from the mid-1990s). There are things about this collection that have always fascinated me; not just those 1980s albums themselves, which I devoured avidly when they were originally released, but also the curious treatment given two of them: one, 1982’s spoken word (with musical accompaniment) Winter Comes Home, was ‘disappeared’ by Thomas – it’s not in the box and Thomas suggests in the sleevenotes that it doesn’t exist (however it’s recently become officially available again as a download at http://www.hearpen.com/hr160.html); perhaps even stranger, Variations on a Theme is not merely remixed (as Wikipedia claims) but in fact completely reworked, with new lyrics/vocals, newly recorded elements, etc (‘overdubs and revisions’ including new contributions from Jim Jones, who was on the original record) from 1989/90.

I like to write about music, and while I have no special insight even after cogitating on various elements of Thomas’ music, I figured it might be a nice project to start a conversation about these remarkable, and frankly overlooked, albums (yes, all six, including Winter Comes Home). How? I am not sure yet, obviously. I’m only starting now. However, it seems reasonable to begin with the first track of the first of these albums, and end up at the last track of the sixth – that’s 57 songs.

As I so often seem to be saying these days, please don’t feel you have to read this. I have a blog because although I write a lot for work, and I write a lot for other publication, too, I also write for my own enjoyment but frankly that enjoyment only really makes sense if there is some sense of the possibility of someone reading it at the other end. For instance, someone searching online for information on David Thomas’ solo records, which are actually pretty underrepresented on the internet (and where they’re there, there’s a lot of misinformation).

‘The Birds Are Good Ideas’ begins the first ‘solo’ album by David Thomas, The Sound of the Sand. It’s not really a solo album; you only have to look at the songwriting credits to appreciate that. With no particular insight into David Thomas’ working practices, I am fairly certain that many of the songs that make up his 1980s solo career are the result of studio jams by the assembled musicians (from Dub Housing onwards, I gather, Pere Ubu worked this way; it’s almost impossible to believe that in 1982 Thomas had a bunch of songs he was itching to record).

OK, so as I get closer to cutting to the chase re: ‘I Think the Birds Are Good Ideas’ I just have one more thing to say about the album it’s on: it’s really badly sequenced, at least as far as user friendliness is concerned. The first three tracks are the abovementioned; followed by ‘Yiki Tiki’ and then ‘The Crickets in the Flats’, an instrumental which Thomas presumably had little or no involvement in (and for which songwriting is credited entirely to drummer Anton Fier), but which – while it would have been terribly deceptive as a first track – would also have been a great opener.

‘I Think the Birds Are Good Ideas’ is, when it comes down to it, not the greatest song, though like a lot of songs on this particular album the exceptional talents of the men in the group mean that on occasion stuff really comes together and you almost have the makings of a real pop song. The last 20 seconds of this track, for instance, could be the germ of a fabulous hit.

Eddie Thornton’s trumpet, very trebly (to 2014 ears it sounds like a tinny synthesizer) really makes the song, if anything does; I gather Thornton was a Rough Trade artist at this time – he released a cover of ‘Theme from a Summer Place’ on 12” I read on Wikipedia though I have absolutely no recollection of ever seeing or hearing about that then or since.

However I assume that the placement of this song at the start of proceedings probably has more to do with the involvement of Richard Thompson, whose recruitment for this album was something of a coup in certain minds – though once again the dichotomy of David Thomas is highlighted. Richard Thompson is amazing as a guitar player and a guitar playing innovator. Almost no-one who likes Richard Thompson would like David Thomas, surely. Maybe there were a few Richard Thompson completists who would buy David Thomas albums with Thompson on them… let’s say there were a hundred? The connection Thomas forged on his solo albums with former members of Henry Cow totally makes sense. The Richard Thompson connection is that Richard Thompson helped to work up some of these songs. Possibly it made some David Thomas fans think Thompson was cool, like he needed that.

There should be a name for the period in Thomas’ career when he had all those songs about mundane everyday stuff. Let’s call it the Mundane period. I assume there are twin aspects to the Mundane period – one, that Thomas is self-consciously using the Mundane topics of birds, shoes, walking as metaphor (hard not to assume that, he suggests it frequently in the songs themselves – and of course there’s a way to read that into the title of this song particularly). The other, less overtly stated, is that his Jehovah’s Witness devotion in this period compels him to marvel at all elements in God’s schema, however small they may be.


Certainly, it’s an upbeat track, and about as far from scary as the material on Dub Housing and New Picnic Time as you can imagine, unless you’re scared by a big American man singing in a high-pitched cartoon voice about birds. The music is cartoony too. The song which follows it, ‘Yiki Tiki’, is almost a part two of the themes herein – more soon.

Monday, July 14, 2014

more incompetent women

A few weeks ago I had a shrill harangue going on about the nasty cartoons in the Bulletin from sixty years ago, for which they must be punished. I just wanted to mention that on the weekend I picked up a copy of The Penguin Petty, a 1972 collection of Bruce Petty cartoons which aren't dated but which are mainly very current (because they're full of cartoons about Billy McMahon, who was only politically hot for a few years in the early 70s) and some more 'timeless' ones, some of which appeared in international organs such as The New Yorker. 

I was having a go at the Bulletin cartoonists for sexism and racism, so I feel I can't really let these cartoons by Petty go by without comment, though I can't quite put my finger on why I don't find these as sexist (they're not racist, of course, indeed there are no race issues touched on in the Petty collection except by a few degrees of separation). Here's one:


I actually don't think this is sexist. I think this is just a person in a difficult situation. 'Miss Melkin' made a mistake with her clay moisture, and no more I suspect. However this:


is a curious one, mainly because Miss Bellenger has such a look of calm, almost disdain, on her unremarkable face. She is not sexualised at all (in fact, she could be a longhaired boy) and nor is she ditzy or flustered by the situation. So, while I would have to say I still can't imagine a cartoon being produced at this time in which the trainee was a young man - who knows, maybe I'll stumble upon one - I also think we could regard this as a transitional cartoon in the field of 'women are shitty drivers' humour.

Obviously this stuff touches me because there is a body of thought which posits I am a shitty driver. Maybe so. But I am not as bad as my mother. Boom tish.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

the drummers in we ragazzi (yes that's right it is my blog and I can write about whatever I please - you don't have to read it)

Every so often I break down and write about We Ragazzi on my blog. It is really weird. I know they are probably only as good as – um – trying to think of a band from the 21st century that I like and which you won’t yawn or sneer at – god that’s too hard – they are (or should I say were) only as good as Your Favourite Band, so partly – and this is a fully rarified version of something I have often felt – listening to them is a pleasure I get from knowing that quite possibly (a la the Red Crayola) I love this band more than anyone else on earth, and that ‘anyone else’ includes the members of the band. And I am reminded of strange things people have said to me about bands I consider totally fucking successful, like the Sunnyboys and the Beastie Boys (hmm… Boy bands) that they are ‘so underrated’. OK, fine. We Ragazzi are, to my mind, so underrated that that they barely even exist on the internet (some of their songs are ostensibly on youtube but if you click on them you get a One Direction song!). People who’ve seen them play have no time for their memory. The band’s former members themselves, as far as I can tell, are entirely uninterested. I mean it’s a challenge.

I’m going to put some completely meaningless visuals onto some of these songs and plonk them on youtube so at least people who search for them find (what I consider to be) great We Ragazzi songs rather than One Direction, whatever that is.

In the last couple of weeks, unable to find my copy of their first album and though not actually sick of the third one nonetheless a little unsurprised by what it holds, I decided to revisit the second, which is called The Ache. I never didn’t like this album, but it is a bit of an anomaly because the greatest ever drummer to have emerged on the 20th/21st century cusp, Alianna Kalaba, who plays on the first and third, isn’t on this one for some reason. Instead a guy called Timothy McConville joins Anthony and Colleen.

The reason I love We Ragazzi is… well, let me count the ways. One is the great guitar lines, and the interplay between those hooks and the vocals; then there’s the bizarre, horny/romantic/bohemian lyrics (almost all the songs on the first and the third albums can be placed, lyrically on a spectrum with poverty/circumstance at one end and romantic infatuation at the other); the superb, harsh keyboards; the no bass (and I lo-o-ove bass! But the lack of bass fully works); and I guess the vibe, which is edgy, clipped but very powerful. And the amazing rhythms Kalaba comes up with. I mean in many ways WR are like an extraordinary synchronized art piece, where you can imagine that if you saw film of them in action with the sound turned down, you wouldn’t even be certain they were playing together as a band, and then you turn it up and you realise it’s all cross-currents and interplay. I love that shit. It’s the same reason I love Jesse Chamberlain and Mayo Thompson playing together – a drummer who finds the right place in amongst the other components of the song but s/he isn’t just playing bomp-da-bomp-da-bomp to the end of every line (which is all I’ve ever really been able to do as a drummer – if I can get that right) but all over the top, underneath and through the whole.

Well, The Ache is a different thing. First of all, the songs are all pretty much love songs. There’s only a little bit of the other angle I always loved, about putting everything we own on the boulevard to get outta town, or having nowhere to go to have sex in private, or ‘Why Does the World Have to Modernise?’ Mainly, this is a love album. Secondly, McConville – who is credited with drums and electronics or something like that – did, I’m sure, take a very hands-on approach to the sound of the song, and the differentiation between various tracks etc. So whereas Alianna was always just telling or commenting on the story through her propulsive and expressive drums, McConville is throwing out very, very competent, much more straight-down-the-line drums, absolutely not in any way anything to be ashamed of – in fact, it’s great and ten times better than I could do at my best (yeah I feel self-conscious critiquing drumming). He’s also, I’m guessing, putting in his two cents’ worth about the sound and style and decoration on each track. So the incredible ballad ‘I Was So Goddamned’ has these echoey golden keyboard notes and angelic backing vocals on the chorus which wouldn’t have been on the first or third (OK, last) album – and around 45 seconds from the end, it goes amazingly r&b in an impressive, but very peculiar way. I’m not saying I don’t love it. I am saying it’s a very different creature to the other two records.

I listened to the whole of The Ache while writing the above. It is a truly sensational album, without a doubt. But then I went to the last album Wolves with Pretty Lips. We’re back on familiar territory right from the outset with the song ‘Walking Before All Shadows’ – it’s all ‘When you have no money, when you have no fame, when you have no connections, no family name’ and it’s not just a love song (though it kind of is), it’s about the freedom of getting out of town, cutting all ties, having nothing whatsoever. This is a feeling I doubt I will ever have, and if I did, I possibly wouldn’t like it. But I like to live it vicariously, and I’m really impressed. And further to my observation about Kalaba above, her playing is, while restrained here, so different from McConville in the detail. She can’t get through a bar without some kind of curlicue or twist. The song ‘Bels’ on WWPL, has every provision for the kind of dumbass beat I’d play through it like a 15 year old playing ‘No Fun’ for her/his first ever time on the drums. AK plays something that, if you want it to be, is that dumb. But then you listen a little more closely and realise that she’s doing something so intricate that, well, I don’t have the words to describe it, or the time to slow it all down and actually map it out as a rhythm. I mean, I don’t even know how I would do that anyway, I couldn’t, but what I do know is it’s not 4/4. I’m not saying McConville would have played 4/4. But you get the sense that with him, on The Ache, he’s thinking like a Motown producer or George Martin; ‘make it catchy, make it stick, make it easy the first time around’. I’m not saying I don’t see all the advantages in that approach. I am saying that when it comes to AK, it’s a distinctive texture that you just couldn’t find anywhere else.

I have written about this before, probably here, sorry, if you search for We Ragazzi online you’ll probably only get basically this blog post and some others I’ve done. Wherein is revealed my atypical mental block re AK’s last name. But the other odd thing about WWPL, which is only slightly relevant to what I’m talking about above, is that the lyrics suddenly get really gay, by which I don’t mean ghey, just gay. Not all of them. Some of the songs are Anthony Rolando singing to or about a woman. But ‘Making You Queens Tonight’ – well, I suppose technically women are literally more likely to become ‘queens’ than men but you know the terminology. And ‘I Want Butterflies (All the Time)’ – I mean holy fuck, not that I’ve ever used that phrase before and nor will I ever again, but it’s really pretty gay. Or am I totally mental? Yes, but I’m pretty sure I’m right about this one, it’s all about getting a boy, seeing a boy ‘at our shows’, not necessarily wanting to have sex with him (or at least, seeing him ‘in the morning bedroom light’, which I imagine is kind of an allusion to having sex with someone, unless you know they do room service at your hotel)… whew. Anyway what I wanted to say is, yes, I read too much into it, but I really feel like Kalaba is in the background doing this topsy-turvy drumming that’s kind of a tasteful version of a ‘doinggggg!’ sound effect (or the ‘stylus scratches the record’ noise) but it also says, you won’t expect this, but don’t take it at face value…


Bottom line is there aren’t too many bands, or albums, which can keep me occupied and entertained time after time. Most of them, when I know them, I don’t really need to hear them again (apparently there’s a word for this: it’s a psychological syndrome! Echo something). I think the ones that can keep me entertained time and time again are the ones where the drums, in particular, are complementary but unexpected (the other thing I usually need is that the lyrics are fun and intriguing). So, the first and last We Ragazzi albums fit that bill. I still really like The Ache and I’ve been loving it the last few weeks. But it’s the Kalaba magic, I reckon. Apparently she’s played in heaps of other bands, I really should check some out. The others who do it for me – Lindy Morrison (never plays through, always to the song), Clare Moore (good other musical training, I think, is the key for Clare), Jesse Chamberlain (I have never in my life said ‘mo-ther-fuck-er’ in an approving, awestruck way, but when I think of what he plays on the Red Crayola Three Songs on a Trip to the United States record, I am pretty tempted to try that out as an exultation), Jim White, Jeffery Wegener… yepz I could go on. But it’s cool. Gonna make those We Ragazzi videos for YouTube. (yawn) soon.