Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas' solo albums 1981-1987

A few weeks ago I searched through the Hearpen records online releases looking for any David Thomas live recordings which might exist from this period (he was certainly playing live shows) aside from the Winter Comes Home album. I found the three-songs-for-two-dollars release of the above named songs, which don't really come under the 'solo album' mantle because they were only released a few years ago, and they're not on an album. However, it seems pertinent to discuss them here as they answer some questions (and raise a few others) regarding the period during which Sound of the Sand was recorded.

These are three songs, credited to Thomas, and which were recorded by the band Thomas would later (?) christen The Eggs. Only one of these songs finally emerged on Sound of the Sand; 'Happy to See You'. It appears here in a slightly different version from the cornerstone song on Sound of the Sand. The line-up for the sessions is Paul Hamann, Alan Greene, Ralph Carney, Allen Ravenstine and Scott Krauss. 

Hamann (and his father, Ken) recorded/produced a lot of Pere Ubu/David Thomas material. Greene is a well-known Ohio guitarist, who at this time was a member of a band called Breathless – hence his credit appended with ‘courtesy EMI.’ Carney was (and is) a member of Tin Huey (his intro really makes ‘Happy to See You’ the marvel it is). He and Thomas were also on a track called ‘Sunset Over Hibernia’ with other Tin Huey members, included on a kind of a compilation album called Bowling Balls from Hell; the lyrics on that track were re-used for another song on the Pere Ubu album Song of the Bailing Man.

‘Atom Mind’ is a far more straightforward song instrumentally than most found on Sound of the Sand; it harks back to the earlier Pere Ubu material (eg, ‘Modern Dance’ – particularly the sound of the anvil strikes), harks forward, if such a thing is possible, to stabs at the pop charts like ‘Waiting for Mary’, as well as referencing songs like ‘Working in a Coal Mine.’ Devo’s cover of that song, incidentally, does not sound a million miles removed from this one: you could credibly describe Devo’s  ‘Working in a Coal Mine’ as a cross between the original song, ‘Modern Dance’ and a pre-rock syncopated song like, for instance, Elvis Presley’s ‘Wooden Heart’.

Alan Greene (presumably – and as an aside, I note that Thomas credits him under his ‘real’ name, Alan Greenblatt, on the download details) contributes the guitar figure that runs throughout the song, and Scott Krauss adds a very solid, four-on-the-floor beat; considering that when Pere Ubu, by contrast, made a single at roughly the same time it was the loping, sing-song ‘Not Happy’ – let’s just say that ‘Atom Mind’ is a disco sparkler by contrast. Had one heard songs such as this one as examples of David Thomas’ solo direction in 1981, the assumption would surely be that the new direction would be unchallengeably commercial. Of course, this was not to be, though whether personnel are responsible rather than concerted decisions on Thomas’ part is probably unknowable.

What is the song about? Very few snatches of lyric are discernable. The second verse seems to reference ‘River Deep Mountain High’, or perhaps it doesn’t. There is also some confusion about whether the song is called ‘Atom Mind’ or ‘Atom Mine’ (the lyrics are very topographical, and do seem to be essentially concerned with a mine rather than a mind, though there are lines suggesting – if I’m hearing correctly – that ‘in my mind there’s the name of a town…’

The second song amongst these outtakes is ‘As Shoes Go By’, a more ragbag affair that, like ‘Atom Mind’, references another element of pre-avant garde Pere Ubu, the first album and its associated singles, and winks in the direction of ‘Drinking Wine (Spodyody)’ too. Like a lot of earlier Pere Ubu songs, the other musicians (presumably – or David Thomas singing very conventionally) on the recording provide backing vocals, singing ‘who’s that, who’s that’. The song breaks down a couple of times to showcase what sounds like a piece of found spoken word. Ravenstine is very much in evidence on this track, too (not so much on the others). It’s upbeat and throwaway – indeed, ‘Atom Mind’ and ‘As Shoes Go By’ would have made a great single A- and B-side.

Which just leaves us with the ‘Happy to See You’ version. I am going to stick my neck out and say that in fact this is a rough mix – Krauss’ count-ins and the abrupt ending (common enough practice for a rough, when all you need is a general indication of how things will sound when it’s done properly). The count-ins initially struck me as a piece of good-humoured anti-percussion, until I was reminded of Ralph Carney’s testimonial that he was a late-in-the-piece overdub; if Krauss’ eight seconds at the beginning are attempts to start the song (more likely an indication that someone else in the band was not ready, rather than that Krauss was in error) Carney apparently begins at precisely the first count, suggesting that this was indeed a talented musician making the best use of a ‘blank’ space at the beginning of a recording to create an extremely powerful and exciting intro. The only other bits left in for this version that aren’t on the final are around the 2 minute mark, where there is some very subtle guitar/amp noise and more count-in.

If I may just propose one more possibility:  perhaps this was an attempt to make a new Pere Ubu after Tom Herman left but before Mayo Thompson joined? Imagine Alan Greene, who was perhaps trying out for the newly remade group, wanting to take the band back to its late 70s, far more rock ‘n’ roll, roots. I admit this theory would hold a lot more water if Tony Maimone, not Paul Hamann, was on these tracks. He isn’t.

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