Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas' solo albums 1981-87

Happy to See You

In my discussion of ‘I Think the Birds Are Good Ideas’ I suggested that the songs on Sound of the Sand were likely to have been largely studio jams by the musicians on the record – and then David Thomas singing over the top. In this case, however, I note that the authorship of ‘Happy to See You’, one of the poppiest songs on the album, is credited to Thomas alone.

I have mentioned that, although the album is technically by David Thomas and the Pedestrians, other ‘bands’ are credited with some of the tracks. This song is recorded by The Trees: Thomas, Paul Hamann, Alan Greene, Scott Krauss, Pere Ubu’s drummer before Anton Fier; Ralph Carney and Allen Ravenstein.

So essentially the track features three Pere Ubu members – recording during the period Pere Ubu was a going concern, with Krauss – and three other Cleveland legends. In an earlier version of this post, I wrote ‘One can only speculate; my assumption is that this is the oldest song on the album, and that it was part of some other project, perhaps an early attempt at something else.’ The three-track download package made available through Hearpen (once Pere Ubu’s record label, now its online shop) states this track was part of the first sessions ‘by David Thomas and the Pedestrians’ at Suma, the Cleveland recording studio, in January 1981.*

The other reason to assume that ‘Happy to See You’ was an early experiment in something else is its excellence as a piece of songwriting. ‘Happy to See You’ is probably the best song on this album of often great songs. This is not because it’s actually one of the most conventional songs on the record; it also has a particular vim and spark which make it stand out (it also has a feature which may have a name in the terminology of recorded music; many times in the past it has come to mind for me, for no particular reason, and in my mind it blends with another piece of music – which I’m not even going to name, it’s so esoteric – the two seem to fit seamlessly, and this is part of its appeal for me).

It’s a bouncy, summery tune for the lyrics of which Thomas once again reworks his own cartoonish persona; he’s most like a joyful animal than anything else. Just like on ‘Rhapsody in Pink’ he was a ‘big pink ball’ spending ‘a day under the water’, here he is ‘so happy to see you, I fell into the basement’. He is, essentially, almost weightless and other than human, for the purposes of conveying his particular joy.

Until I started writing these analyses, I took Sound of the Sand pretty much on its own terms – the album is exceptionally, almost ridiculously, diverse but it always seemed to work perhaps because there were some greater dynamics at play that served to unify rather than highlight the contrasts. Now I’m taking the album track by track, I have to say that feeling has crumbled somewhat. Whereas the second (far more cohesive) David Thomas solo album was Variations on a Theme, this one could perhaps be called Ten Attempts at a Solo Career. Some of the attempts (this one, for instance: individual, sprightly, complex, good-humoured, clever) are just wonderful; had Thomas pursued this direction further, the album would have been a lot more accessible and broadly listenable. It’s hard to imagine that David Thomas could ever have mainstream success, except perhaps with a one-off novelty hit that exploited the idiosyncracies of his voice and perspective, to the detriment of his integrity (and honour) as an artist. But The Trees were clearly a softer, less self-indulgent proposition than many of the other configurations featured here. Which is not to talk down self-indulgence – which is much-underrated – just to suggest that there was a different template set at one stage, and for some reason, not followed (the two other ‘Trees’ outtakes released as part of the Hearpen package will be dealt with in a few weeks).

I am no audiophile, so I would not like to make too much of this, but this album (and the Pere Ubu album which followed it, Song of the Bailing Man), were unusual LPs in that they played at 45 RPM. I would like to know when the decision to adopt this approach was made (and why; it’s a break from convention that must surely have caused a lot of confusion amongst consumers).** Of course, these records are now only available as CDs or downloads, so the speed is no longer an issue. However, I do wonder how the decision was made to master – and perhaps even mix – based on the requirements of a 45 RPM 12” record. There are, presumably, a third as many grooves on the record; this surely reduces the bass. This is a particularly trebly track; considerations on this front are surely all now long-forgotten, but must have had impact.

* This email received from Ralph Carney on 1 September 2014 - I contacted him to ask what he remembered of the recording - kind of suggests I'm wrong about the date. He says: 'what i remember is i recorded it on a trip back to Akron after moving to N.Y. i feel like it was dec 1981 or so and David asked if i could come to Cleveland to record on this song. i had an alto sax and a  chinese souna (not sure if that is how it's spelled) a chinese double reed oboe thing. i haven't heard that record in at least 30 years! i seem to remember it was just an overdub.  If i remember anything else about it  other than David being David ha! i will write you more, cheers, and thanks for asking... ralph' NB on the sleeve, Carney is credited with 'sax, musette'.

** Both the Rip, Rig and Panic albums released on the Virgin label at roughly this time were 'album-length' but comprised two 12" 45s. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas' Solo Albums 1981-1987

Big Dreams

Not much is ever made about Mayo Thompson’s influence on David Thomas. The classic that would spring to any mind versed in the work of either and/or Pere Ubu is the song ‘Loop’ on Art of Walking, for which the two sing a duet with singularly obtuse lyrics asking, amongst other things, ‘what’s a swarm of gnats to do with a pile of rocks?’ Not the question on everyone’s lips hitherto or ever after, but nonetheless related to a very enticing loping heavy reggae bassline and splashes of crazy guitar. (I note also that there is a line in ‘Big Dreams’ – ‘don’t look under the rock’ – which is, bizarrely, presented in the lyrics on the original album in inverted commas; I doubt this is a direct reference to ‘Loop’, however, and would point also to ‘Crush this Horn, Pt. 2’ which is two tracks later on the record and which explain that ‘it’ (the horn, presumably) ‘crawled out from under a rock, you see.’

As mentioned, this first David Thomas solo album comes between the last two Pere Ubu albums of the band’s original iteration (after which, by some measures, the Pere Ubu aesthetic and ideal carries through Thomas’ solo recordings and is made whole again with the restitution of the band name in 1987). Thompson was a member of Pere Ubu for both Art of Walking and Song of the Bailing Man; it might be argued also that both these albums were crafted by their newest member, so that Art of Walking is Thompson’s Pere Ubu, and Song of the Bailing Man is Anton Fier’s. Perhaps - ? This just occurred to me. Certainly, the former is extremely dense and a tough nut to crack, and the latter is as much of a pop album as the group had ever made. The ridiculous decision to leave Thompson’s song ‘The Use of a Dog’ – possibly the best track on the album, or perhaps I’m biased – off the box set of the first five Pere Ubu albums suggests that somewhere along the line someone definitely felt that whosever album Song of the Bailing Man was, it wasn’t Mayo Thompson’s.

Sound of the Sand falls between the two, in so many ways: as an experimental work, as a container of pop songs, as a showcase for Thomas’ lyrical and singing talents. Mayo Thompson plays on the last track on Sound of the Sand, but his involvement is scant even there. More important is the intrusion of his sharp intellect onto Thomas’ spongey field of ideas. ‘Big Dreams’ is an example of this. Lyrically, it has all the elements of a great Red Crayola non-sequiteur: the jamming together of concepts, including some clich├ęs hijacked for new settings (‘Harry burst the bubble yesterday’) and an endpoint punchline which grabs the reader and forces her/him to recast everything s/he has just heard on a second listen. Spoiler: the punchline is that the dreams are ‘too big, they’re not real’. Further analysis might lead one to discussing the track in terms of its reference to ‘reality’, but also to ambition – the music industry? The individual in the material world? The seeker of religious solace?  

The mention of ‘Harry’ is an early example of Thomas’ move into namechecking (presumably) fictitious characters from song to song; Harry is the ‘bailing man’, too, as mentioned on the song of the same name (but not the album; ‘The Song of the Bailing Man’ is a track on More Places Forever: Harry had a notion to bail out the ocean/ so under the clouds he did stand with his bucket in his hand.’ Harry also bursts the bubble in this song, too).

The track is a musical roller coaster, naturally, which almost prefigures that popular frenetic-to-almost-non-existently-slow pattern which would be made ubiquitous by thrash bands of the following decade, but which probably owes its existence to the useful practice, in the early 80s, of treating the complete history of popular music as a melting pot from which half-melted ideas could be stuck together with impunity and free of accusations of appropriation (except appropriation for the good). I hear some aspects of free jazz, trad jazz, Chicago funk, and calypso. I’d have to say that, all things considered, the sum is not quite better than the potential of such a mix, and the end result arguably ends up feeling a little pat. This is particularly true because of the clinical, rote feel of the arrangement (not the tune, so much, as its stop-start-stop rapid fire).

Phillip Moxham and David Thomas are the two musicians credited with writing the track, and it’s one of the few examples to my knowledge of Phllip Moxham writing a song (I’m assuming he is completely responsible for the music here). Moxham was, as is well known, a member of the Young Marble Giants – I think he might have a co-write on their one album from the year before this one; he also, I glean from Wikipedia, went on to play bass in the Communards and Everything But the Girl. Once again, one can only speculate but it’s my assumption that – just as the Red Crayola album Kangaroo? is something of a ‘supergroup’ based around the Rough Trade label’s stable of artists, so too was the decision to assemble the Pedestrians an ad-hoc collection of interesting people; perhaps just people who were hanging around the label, or were available that week, or needed some session fees (assuming RT paid them). It may have been more crafted than this; it’s notable that, while Thomas went on to retain Fier and (Richard) Thompson for the second Pedestrians album, Moxham and Thornton – two players who make this such an intriguing and multifaceted work – were absent, as was Ravenstine who would however return for subsequent releases.

Ultimately, then, a fine 2:20 beginning to side 2 of the album, a little scattershot and bizarre, but by this stage that is what one has come to expect. Certainly, a good setup for track 2.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas' solo albums 1981-87

'New Atom Mine'

I think David Thomas has made an extraordinary contribution to art rock, and in some respects also to the progress of western music. There are some aspects of his output though which are primarily unique to himself.

‘The New Atom Mine’ is credited to Thomas, Thompson, Fier and Greaves. It is the fifth and final song on side one of Sound of the Sand in the original vinyl release, where we find the following explanation of the song: ‘This song does not toast The Physicist as an individual or a class. Rather, it’s an expression of appreciation for the publishing of exciting information.’ (There’s another song with an explanation – ‘Man’s Best Friend’ – which I’ll get to in a few weeks).

No doubt there was a bit of hair-tearing at Rough Trade when this song was put forward for inclusion on the album, for the song does appear somewhat in praise of the ‘physicist/Working in the Fermi Lab,’ although some might have been assured that the description of the physicist humming ‘like a jolly (or ‘merry’) loon’ is not exactly an endorsement of his mental state.

The dangers of nuclear research and the weapons that may be developed from them were on everyone’s mind at this time. 1981 was the year of the infamous Greenham Common protests – though the activities surrounding Greenham Common did not begin until September, after recording on Sound of the Sand had concluded.

The Fermilab (the album’s sleeve notes present it as two words, which is fair since it named for physicist Enrico Fermi, but as far as I can tell, also wrong) was established in the late 1960s for the study of particle physics. It is six hours’ drive west of Thomas’ hometown of Cleveland, OH, and just outside Chicago. By some accounts, a town called Weston voted itself out of existence – just as a developer was poised to create a new suburban landscape there – to make way for the new complex (http://www.wbez.org/bey/2010/07/weston-il-how-nuclear-research-and-the-mob-stopped-a-suburb-from-getting-built/31190). I mention this only as background for anyone who might wish to contemplate why Thomas chose ‘the Fermi Lab’ as the place to set his song. The song itself gives limited detail. Instead, it talks about odd concepts such as the ‘Atom Mine’ (what it is about the lab that makes it a ‘mine’?).

The music on this track is rambling and linear; it is almost certainly an example of a jammed backing created more for the sake of Richard Thompson’s guitar improvisation than anything else, with Thomas no doubt writing his part to suit later in the piece. Presumably the participants were all surprised by the song’s subject matter and focus – probably when they got their copy of the album. Thompson’s guitar has a slightly ‘oriental’ feel (I lack the musical smarts to know exactly what that constitutes, but I know it when I hear it) which nevertheless has no bearing on the song’s subject matter.

One element of this track which resonates with Thomas’ next album (Winter Comes Home) is the portion, towards the end, when he obfuscates about ending the song and leaving the physicist alone in his lab. He suggests it’s late and time to go, asks the physicist if there’s anything he needs, and then encourages two children (surely, Thomas’ voice sped up?) to also say goodbye. This is absurdist comedy, and it is another example of the way in which the song hints at the notion of addressing an unpalatable issue, such as nuclear physics, and then discombobulates it – as do Thomas’ nutty professor noises, also at the close of the track. Thomas was 28 in 1981 time; he was already well into playing the part of someone much older.

‘New Atom Mine’ is a slippery piece of work. It seems to be saying something about work and human endeavor. It sidesteps any concerns about the use and abuse of such endeavor, and in that sense it could almost be considered a rather cowardly poke at an issue that many felt was the single most important issue of the day and a matter of life and death. Then again, I generally feel that Thomas is probably smarter than that, and perhaps it is inappropriate to use a word like ‘cowardly’ here. After all, he is discussing a world of research removed from the everyday, in which the scientist is both hard-working and in pursuit of a knowledge the outcomes of which neither he nor anyone can control.

In 1978 Thomas told Jon Savage, speaking of Pere Ubu, that ‘Our job is to make music as a steelmaker’s is to…whatever his particular function is. What’s the difference? We just happen to deal with different media, with a different sort of raw material.’ (in Sounds 20 May 1978 and reprinted in Savage, Time Travel Random House London 1997, p. 75). There may be a reading in which Thomas himself is the scientist and/or worker at the heart of the song and the construction of the song – true, the music does sound somewhat laboriously mechanistic – is an example of his process. That’s pretty reflexive. It makes sense, though. And while there is not much to be said about the idea of a ‘New Atom Mine’, particularly as there is nothing said in the lyrics about its ‘newness,’ it’s surely worth drawing some conclusions from the similarity to the title New Picnic Time; to the unpalatability, for some, of the final track on that album (‘Jehovah’s Kingdom Come’, later retitled as ‘Hand a Face a Feeling’) and the overall weirdness of both new picnics and atoms.

In the final analysis my feeling is that this song is not entirely successful as a piece of music; it’s altogether shambolic and Thomas’ repetitive and obtuse lyric doesn’t quite pull the thing together as anyone might have hoped. The reference to nuclear technology doesn’t help. That said, it’s another example of a Thomas song I can instantly summon to mind at any time; it is, almost despite itself, catchy and its quirks are value-adds.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Nature prance: David Thomas' solo albums 1981-1987

Sound of the Sand

Having already made much of the lack of commerciality of The Sound of the Sand it seems appropriate to announce that, four tracks in, the album does actually hit what could almost be a pop ballad – albeit one with a rather obtuse subject matter. But Thomas is singing in the most accessible manner he can; Eddie Thornton (multitracked) is skillfully accentuating the ebb and flow of the melody with verve; Philip Moxham is similarly attuned.

It might be fair to suggest that this track and ‘Happy to See You’ are the heart of each side of The Sound of the Sand. They are closer to conventional songs – to the degree that you could imagine them performed by other artists to some acclaim from people who otherwise had no interest in David Thomas or Pere Ubu.

At the same time as this may be true (I have a bad habit of lacking the imagination to understand why others don’t like everything I like) it’s also useful to look at the context in which The Sound of the Sand was released. This was the period at Rough Trade records during which focus switched very strongly towards commercial concerns, notably the Scritti Politti phenomenon, whereby Rough Trade which had been the leading (?) independent label and distributor in the UK for some years ramped up its operations in a bid to become a player in the pop market. The most unusual bit of this story – which otherwise has very little to do with the David Thomas oeuvre – is that Scritti Politti had, until very recently, been the absolute nadir of scratchy, indie, scrappy music; at a certain point, they changed direction to try and cut it with the slickest, smoothest of contemporary pop. When I say ‘try’, they not only tried but actually succeeded. It didn’t hurt that the main (soon to be only) member of Scritti Politti, Green Gartside, was a handsome man with a great voice. David Thomas was an overweight, odd-looking man with a voice that, while distinctive, was absolutely an acquired taste. However, one might imagine that at RT there was something of a change of focus, based on economic and even political (‘change the system from within’) reality. It may also be important to note that Adam Kidron produced both Scritti Politti’s first album Songs to Remember and Sound of the Sand.

The changes may also have been about identifying a demographic for the label per se. Charles Hayward, an exceptional drummer with origins in British art rock who then went on to be a part of a group considered more postpunk than anything, This Heat, recalls in Neil Taylor’s great Rough Trade history, Document and Eyewitness:

After This Heat finished, I became associated with Rough Trade… I remember one night working with Stuart Moxham from Young Marble Giants and Geoff came over to me and enthused about Stuart’s songs. He said to me that a lot of people who had listened to This Heat’s music had now paired off, bought flats, and they wanted music to reflect that.
 Neil Taylor Document and Eyewitness Orion, 2010 p. 196

Note also that Philip Moxham, Stuart’s brother, plays on six of the tracks on Sound of the Sand, and note too that I have no idea what to make of that fact beyond that it is a fact.

Mayo Thompson (who I admit I am a bit obsessed with) might have had some major input into this scenario. He worked at Rough Trade, produced a lot of the label’s records, and even ‘looked after’ The Smiths when they came to be RT’s main commercial hope after Scritti Politti moved on to a major label. Thompson plays on one track on Sound of the Sand and was a member of Pere Ubu for the last two albums of the original iteration, both released on RT. Additionally, David Thomas (and most of Pere Ubu) also appear on the remarkable 1979 Soldier Talk LP performed by Thompson and Jesse Chamberlain, at that time the two members of the Red Krayola. The peculiarity of this relationship, however, is that Thompson – possibly one of the most ‘art rock’ of guitarists to have ever sustained a fifty year career primarily in music – was on some level part and parcel of this shift to commercial music. Thompson was not Thomas’ ‘label boss’, and it’s hard to imagine him talking strategy with Thomas about marketing much less about the content of his records. Nevertheless, he has a presence at this time: perhaps that’s all we can say with certainty.

To the song itself. Though David Thomas is insistent that his solo work should be regarded as separate from Pere Ubu, he’s wrong to do so. Even on the most superficial level, this is a peculiar suggestion; lyrically the connections are numerous (as per ‘Yiki Tiki’). The third Pere Ubu album New Picnic Time has a track called ‘Voice of the Sand’; the words are by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) from his book The Daniel Jazz.

There may be other ‘sand’ reference songs in the Pere Ubu oeuvre; I can’t think of any off the top of my head but if I do I’ll come back here and add them in. However, the connection is undeniable. The main thrust of Lindsay’s poem fragment – which Thomas hiss-whispers – is that there is far more sea than sand. The sand’s ‘sound’ is a lot less distinctive in Thomas’ own song, which conjures up various words – relating to quietness and contemplation. The sand is vocal here too: it says ‘hush do not cry’, strange but true.

The ensemble playing here could be bracketed stylistically with the last two songs on the album, ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘Man’s Best Friend’, as having a particular ‘sea shanty’ lilt, true particularly of ‘Sound of the Sand’ in the concluding section.

It does have a certain sadness, true, but ‘Sound of the Sand’ is an uplifting and captivating piece of work, which I endorse.