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Remixed Pere Ubu Albums Bring Fresh Intimacy To The Band's Vocals


This is FRESH AIR. When Pere Ubu first emerged from Cleveland in the late 1970s, the group was pegged as a punk band for its loud, abrasive sound. Pere Ubu leader David Thomas always resisted the label and has spent the past four decades pursuing his own style over the course of more than 20 albums. Thomas recently remixed two of his favorite Ubu albums, 1998's "Pennsylvania" and 2002's "St. Arkansas," saying that the remixes are so substantial they amount to being two new albums. Rock critic Ken Tucker is a longtime fan of Pere Ubu and has this review.


PERE UBU: There's a diner out of Route 322, western Pennsylvania. I spent my life there one afternoon. I can't get that stretch of road out of my head. I hear it when I take a shower, reading the paper.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: To say that Pere Ubu isn't for everyone is putting it mildly. The band has no hits, but it does have fellow travelers. And really, no matter how dense and dissonant the music, there's always a beat to follow, like a line painted down the middle of a song to keep you on the road with the band. Pere Ubu's personnel has shifted constantly. The one constant is David Thomas' voice and lyrics. On both "Pennsylvania" and "St. Arkansas," he takes you on rides across blasted landscapes, the backseat littered with junk food and paperback novels, pressing onward to see what will break down first, the car or the song he's singing.


DAVID THOMAS: (Singing) I wear a suit. And honey, I wear a tie. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm going to look good each and every day I say goodbye. I love that highway - U.S. 322. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Six miles south of Meadville...

TUCKER: These two albums from 1998 and 2002 are connected in at least one way. Thomas said on a recent podcast that the song "Dark" on "Arkansas" was written to explain the song "Drive" on "Pennsylvania." So let's listen to the two songs back-to-back. On "Drive," Thomas is in a car, hoping his desperation doesn't show in the eyes he sees in his rearview mirror. He's on a lonely road, he says, when tomorrow has no home in yesterday.


THOMAS: (Singing) Drive to the sun, past the brittle bones of a moon-like world. It's a big country and a sun-scarred land, and the wind howls through a winter of lies. It's a long way back down a road that everybody knows. It's empty now, but my eyes are framed in the rearview. Does the desperation show? Drive to the sun, he said, through a look that looks from far away.

TUCKER: Four years later, on "Dark," it becomes more apparent that Thomas is driving to fulfill a sense of purpose. What he aims to do is to experience the life and the afterlife of, quote, "every ghost town rising in the dust that feels like home to me."

Thomas' constant companion on these journeys is the radio, specifically the AM radio, a throwback to an earlier era of pop-culture listening. The new remix of "Dark" has had an additional title attached to it. It's "The Radio Shall Set You Free."


THOMAS: (Singing) Oh, my friends don't understand me. And my wife begins to fear that I've lost some sense of balance, and I've lost the will to live. And the radio - AM radio - oh, the radio will set you free. Oh, the radio - AM radio - oh, the radio will set you free. And I drive because I do what I want. And I drive cause I was born to drive. And I drive cause every ghost town rising in the dust feels like a home to me. And the radio - AM radio...

TUCKER: These remixed versions of the albums bring the vocals forward in fresh intimacy. When I hear Thomas' voice, I can see in my mind what his face looks like. He's singing with his eyes closed, his face scrunched up. His lyrics are his thoughts as he muses to himself. He's a man who's perpetually waking up from either a deep sleep or a cat nap, immediately wanting to hop in a car and take off.


THOMAS: (Singing) One day, I will be your man. One day, I will be the best that you can do. Time will catch up to you. Oh, time will catch up to you like it caught me too. Frozen...

TUCKER: I love this recent comment from David Thomas - I always had the idea that Pere Ubu was going to be the sort of band that Herman Melville and William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler would have wanted to be in if they'd grown up in the rock and roll age. Like those writers, men on quests into dark places using familiar language in unexpected ways, David Thomas says Pere Ubu is trying to occupy the space between where you are and where you want to be.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the remixed Pere Ubu albums "Pennsylvania" and "St. Arkansas."

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.