Release date: April 1st
Record label: Fire
Genre: Post-punk, art punk, experimental rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Nuke the Whales 2006-2014 is the fifth in Fire Recordings’ series of box sets compiling the vital work of Cleveland’s Pere Ubu, an anthology that has provided hours of proof that the band has a lot more to offer than a handful of early punk rock-era “hits”. The last few reissues (Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés 1987-1991 and Drive, He Said 1994-2002) have resurrected several unheralded masterpieces of albums, but the material on Nuke the Whales has never been my favorite era of Pere Ubu, so I wasn’t quite sure how I’d feel revisiting these albums. I’m happy to report that the high points from these records sound even better than I recalled, and I found plenty to enjoy behind even those.
The two records I expected to enjoy going into Nuke the Whales were the bookends (2006’s Why I LUV Women and 2014’s Carnival of Souls) and both of them eagerly held up their ends of the bargain. They’re the two that best exemplify what this period of Pere Ubu sounded like: the dark, driving art rock of Drive, He Said mixed with the off-the-wall experimentation of Architecture of Language 1978-1982. I’ve seen Why I LUV Women grouped with the Drive, He Said albums before, and it definitely does sound like St. Arkansas and Pennsylvania in places. It feels looser than either of those records, though—it’s a warped garage rock album that honestly isn’t even that warped in many places. The band stomps through rockers like “Two Girls (One Bar)” and “Caroleen”, while the quitter, noir-sounding tracks feel like they could ignite at any moment.
Carnival of Souls has the backbone and spirit of Why I LUV Women, but takes it to decidedly odder places. This reissue ups the strangeness by adding in B-sides “Throb Array” and “Moonstruck”, primal soundscapes that somehow widen the depths of the record even further when placed alongside tracks like the gentle Ubu-country of “Irene” and the full-throttle opening track “Golden Surf II”. Carnival of Souls was originally conceived as a live score to the movie from which it gets its title, and the Nuke the Whales version emphasizes its evocativeness, but also the “live” part, too. Sure, “Golden Surf II” is an exciting full-band rocker, but even the weirder tracks like “Drag the River” and “Bus Station” hammer the listener with percussion blasts.
The biggest surprise for me was 2013’s The Lady from Shanghai. I never disliked the record exactly, but the album’s dense forays into electronic music always left me a bit cold. David Thomas’ remixing of the album didn’t exactly turn it into Pet Sounds, but these songs (shortened to fit on one vinyl record) now strike me as hypnotic and transfixing in an intriguing way, and it’s slowly rising to the level of the previous records for me. Shorter tracks like opener “Thanks” and “And Then Nothing Happened” are interesting ideas that fly by in a daze, and Thomas thrives over the dark precision of “Mandy” and “Musicians Are Scum”. The final two tracks (the harrowing “414 Seconds” and “The Carpenter Sun”, which sounds like what I imagine people who don’t like Pere Ubu think all their songs sound like) are still a trip, but they sound exactly like how The Lady from Shanghai should end.
Each Fire box set has contained a record of B-sides, cut songs, and general miscellanea, and while 2009’s Long Live Père Ubu doesn’t fit this description, perhaps it’s best thought of as “extra”. It’s a very Pere Ubu-esque musical adaptation of the play from which the band got its name—I have listened to this material long enough to know the plot and enjoy it, although I have no idea how it’d play for new listeners. It’s best to listen to it as a whole to decide if you fall among the small subset of people that Long Live Père Ubu is “for” (which is, of course, part of the slightly less small subset of people that Ubu in general is “for”). I do expect that a few songs here (“Song of the Grocery Police”, “Road to Reason”) work out of context—that’s in no small part due to co-lead vocalist Sarah Jane Morris, who gets the majority of the (non-big sombrero related) lines.
I’m glad that Nuke the Whales 2006-2014 exists; the box set as a whole might be for the hardcore Ubu fans, but with the exception of Long Live Père Ubu, you don’t need to be one to enjoy the music contained therein. We’re always in some kind of “post-punk revival”, and there’s always new buzz bands that are “transforming rock music”, so I know these albums have a broader appeal than to those already converted. Pere Ubu are something like that eatery described in Why I LUV Women’s closing track “Texas Overture”—it might be one barbeque restaurant in a sea of others, but once you find it, it has everything you need, and as Thomas matter-of-factly states, it’s the best in the land.