We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Pere Ubu


Not for David Thomas the romance of verdant hills and crashing waterfalls and itty-bitty butterflies. Irretrievably damaged by the Mistake by the Lake, the Pere Ubu frontman and Cleveland native, now based in the U.K., is immensely fond of the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the same publicity screed for the new St Arkansas that acknowledges “All songs written by Pere Ubu” also vows that “the words [of the album were] written by the mighty road from Conway Arkansas to Tupelo Mississippi, I-40 to US 49 to State 6.” Ubu’s 12th studio album, St Arkansas is a love song to the Highway—not the Road of the musician’s well-worn text, but a tar-topped, Jersey-walled place Thomas is apparently fated to roam. He and his fellow Ubu travelers—original member Tom Herman, Robert Wheeler, Michele Temple, Steve Mehlman, and Jim Jones—are nearly all over 40 (drummer Mehlman was born in 1971), and their music seems untouched by anything post-Talking Heads: In “Where’s the Truth,” Thomas cadges the river-flows-to-the-sea lyrics (in a rare allusion to Mother Nature) from “Ballad of Easy Rider,” and the fuzzed-out guitars and smacked two-beat drums in “Phone Home Jonah” sound like garage-band Steppenwolf. But age doesn’t mean stagnation any more than influence-brandishing means insincerity. Thomas, who has stated that he doesn’t traffic in irony, evinces an utter belief in the voices of his characters. When he orchestrates the 18-wheeler punk of “The Fevered Dream of Hernando DeSoto,” all tinny guitars, propulsive drum rolls, keyboard clangor, and screaming theremin, you know he’s mentally cruising the Rust Belt. When he unleashes a David Byrne-sy chant in “Slow Walking Daddy,” it’s a paean to U.S. 322: “I love that road/I love the way it yields to me/It sorta breathes and whispers out my name, that’s how it feels.” And when he says “AM radio…will set you free,” he’s talking about the ’70s kind, slipping in and out of the car speakers from faraway transmitters like the voice of God, in all its compressed mono mystery. In the exuberant, high-octane soundscape of St Arkansas, the only real threat is standing still—a danger to which the Ubuites, even after 27 years, seem immune. —Pamela Murray Winters