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 clichĂ©s 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.

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