Listening to “Lady from Shanghai,” the new album from Pere Ubu, one might come to the conclusion that band leader David Thomas doesn’t read a lot of Pitchfork. We should all be this lucky, but if you’re going to try to record weird music, it might be helpful to know what is considered the norm these days.
After all, this is a strange time in rock ‘n’ roll. Artists like Animal Collective and Grimes are being enjoyed by regular music fans and not just indie-rock critics, while John Talabot is considered a house musician. These are strange times indeed, and shocking people is much harder than it used to be. Pere Ubu tries really hard on “Lady of Shanghai,” but the music is still more normal than they realize.
In the late ’70s, Pere Ubu released two of the strangest albums to come from the punk scene: “The Modern Dance” and “Dub Housing.” These were both fantastic albums that helped advance post-punk. And, while it’s commendable the band has continued this far, the music they recorded after the ’70s has ranged from pretty good (“Cloudland”) to downright awful (“Why I Hate Women”).
“Lady from Shanghai” isn’t good, but it’s not downright awful either. It’s just plain boring. If it had been recorded by anybody but Pere Ubu, it wouldn’t be worth talking about. Even then, it’s not worth talking about because of the band’s classic status but because of the __point its mediocrity makes: Artists with a drive to be original will always become unoriginal with time.
Look at Bob Dylan: He has spent his recent career doing what he’s always done—writing good folk songs. And his recent albums are great (well, maybe not the last couple). His music still works because he places substance over style. “Modern Times” wasn’t as stylistic as “Highway 61 Revisited,” but that’s okay; he’s old. We expect that.
Thomas is an artist driven by style. His songs rarely have substance and he hopes making the music as bizarre as possible will make up for that. That worked a little in the ’80s and ’90s, when he was still capable of getting something out of that style. Now, he’s lost it. His style no longer works because younger artists are being influenced by his old work and they have the energy to make better music. Some of them are even good songwriters.
Thomas said “Lady from Shanghai” was his attempt at making “dance music, fixed.” If so, then dance music was already fixed in 2003, when The Rapture released “Echoes.”
There are a couple memorable songs on “Lady from Shanghai.” The opening track, “Thanks,” features damn good bass playing, and unlike many of the album’s worst moments, it’s short and sweet.
“Musicians are Scum” lives up to the promise of its quite funny title. The one great song on the album, “Mandy,” is one of the best recent examples of this “dance music, fixed” Thomas thinks he created, even if it does go on a bit too long.
“Lady from Shanghai” is dull but harmless. Much like the new Public Image Ltd album that came out last year, it shows a once-fascinating group that has been made lifeless by their influence. At the same time, Pere Ubu is hardly the worst band to be making music like this, and even if they were, they are no longer important enough for that to leave a noticeable mark on the music scene. Either way, we should just be thankful they aren’t collaborating with Metallica.
Key Tracks: “Mandy” and “Thanks.”