Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance (1978)
I'll preface by admitting that not everyone will enjoy this album. For reasons that evade me completely, some people may actually hate this album... at least upon hearing it for the first time. But while that's true, I still think this is probably the best album of the 1970s, and I'll tell you why.
Very rarely does an album come along as inspired and wildly inventive as this one. While this is Pere Ubu's first full-length album, they had practice honing their craft from their roots in the Cleveland punk rock group Rocket from the Tombs, and further refined themselves with their masterful debut EP as Pere Ubu, Datapanik in the Year Zero.
And while that EP deserves plenty of credit in its own right, The Modern Dance took the ideas starting to come to the surface there to a whole new level. The album is almost perfectly coherent from start to finish, as if every second were meticulously planned to complement the next.
Things start with the anthemic and energetic Non-Alignment Pact, which begins with about 20 seconds of pulsating feedback and a few bass notes which finally give way to a fantastic riff and easily the catchiest and most accessible song on the album. If this song doesn't win you over instantly, this album is not for you. Even being the most accessible song on the album, it still features David Thomas's signature charismatic wailing and the fantastically integrated brilliant analog synth work from Allen Ravenstine.
We then come to the title track The Modern Dance, which actually had shown up in prototype form on Datapanik in the Year Zero as 'Untitled'. More of Ravenstine's signature synth playing accompanies more of Thomas's usual warbling vocals. I love the bassline in this song.
Then we come to Laughing, which apparently is a song a lot of people are lost on. This one has elements of free jazz and prog rock, featuring improvised sax and a wonderful bass groove, and lyrics like, 'my baby says / when the devil comes we'll shoot him with a gun'. I actually love this song - it's one of my favorites on the album, but on first listen it might lose you.
But Street Waves (yes, where I get my username) will easily get your attention again. One of the best guitar riffs I've ever heard immediately explodes out of your speakers, introducing the song perhaps best showcasing the band's incredible rhythm section. David Thomas's vocals complement the song's frantic energy perfectly, and this one gets a hold of you and doesn't let go until the very end. A contender for the best song on the album, and also one that'll tend to have a more universal fanbase.
Chinese Radiation begins with beautiful guitar playing accompanied by a perfect example of Ravenstine's incredible synth work. The song then collapses into a frenzy of cheering, mumbled vocals, twanging guitar, and finally slows down to almost spoken-word over soft piano. This is one of the songs on the album that may seem to some people to go nowhere, but within the context of the album, it works perfectly.
We're then introduced to possibly the most wild and abrasive song on the album, Life Stinks. The first noise we hear Thomas make is a maniacal screech, followed by frantic wailing finally degenerating into a total vocal freakout. As usual, the rhythm section is is impeccable, and this song will definitely grow on you if you can give it a chance.
Then we have the slower, downbeat Real World. This is another of the album's masterpieces. The mood and atmosphere is flawless, and you have to admire what Thomas puts into the vocals here.
We're then introduced by Ravenstine's distant synth sounds to Over My Head, another song filled with mood and atmosphere. As with every song thus far, it's impeccably well-done. "It's pretty cute the way she tucks me in at dawn / and how I pray that I never should sin again."
This is the song that obviously doesn't care how many fans it gets. Named after a popular song first sung by Doris Day, Sentimental Journey bears absolutely no resemblance to the original. This is the famous 'breaking glass' song, and while it certainly succeeds at creating an atmosphere of sorts, you won't want to turn this one on in your car.
But thankfully, Pere Ubu knew better than to end this masterful album with a song most people would deem unlistenable. Humor Me is a definite highlight of this wonderful album, featuring a slight reggae-esque sound and lyrics like 'another day, well suffer / for that's the way of the west.' A perfect way to end what I think is the most perfect album of the 1970s.
This is an album that I think I'll be able to listen to 20 years from now and still think this highly of. It seems to be able to defy age - it still is perhaps as challenging as it was as when it came out, and it still is every bit as impressive as to how wildly inventive it is. A true personal favorite - and luckily, I've got it on vinyl in nearly perfect shape, probably the best way to listen.
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