With grunge in the ascendant and America’s wider alt rock community more caustic, confident and uncompromising than it had been in a decade, self-styled avant-garage practitioner David Thomas appeared to abandon the increasingly pop-skewed direction he’d originally embarked upon in 1988 with Pere Ubu’s The Tenement Year reformation album.
But it wasn’t just the zeitgeist that had changed. After four albums of chasing the buck for Fontana with hot alternative producers cynically employed to coax commerciality (Stephen Hague, Gil Norton), Ubu were back on an indie with Thomas producing. Consequently, Raygun Suitcase (1995) saw a satisfying return to wilful complexity. Again referencing a background in industrial Cleveland, guitar dissonance and disconcerting squalls populate a soundscape uniquely Ubu. There’s coherent structure, for sure, yet while there’s stylistic similarity to Pixies, for mainstream tastes, Thomas’ vocal style is always going to be a startled Marmite yelp too far.
But as fans of The Fall and Talking Heads have similarly found to their significant advantage, once you simply accept that you’re not in the hands of an acceptably anodyne crooner and swim with the prevailing sonic tide, the rewards rapidly reveal themselves.
With founding guitarist Tom Herman returning to the fray for the first time since ’79’s New Picnic Time, Pennsylvania (1998) finds the Ubu back in vintage form, Woolie Bullie and Urban Lifestyle exemplify a fiercely provocative, edgy, claustrophobic album that benefits from engaging splashes of Beefheart complexity.
Throughout St Arkansas (2002), Thomas inhabits a cast of characters, spinning a series of dark yarns. His piercing bleat nagging through whorls of theremin, plummets of guitar and sucker-punch drum flurries across 10 engaging ensemble ejaculations like a keening negative image of Tom Waits. Back Roads, a collection of contemporary rarities, completes a set of many and varied depths, perhaps not immediate, but ultimately enduring.