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. 

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