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Road to Perfection

Pere Ubu
St. Arkansas (Cooking Vinyl/spinART)

Pere Ubu’s St. Arkansas is a road record, so rich in texture and so ripe with imagery that it’s hard to experience it as strictly an aural event. It’s a colorful record, invoking hazy blue sky over fading Southern blacktop, yellow “do not pass” lines winding like oxbow-lakes-to-be, as gray creepers of Spanish moss and olive-drab live oaks flit by at periphery. You can smell St. Arkansas, too: It carries the odor of old freon-based air conditioning, sweat, cigarette butts, cheap cologne and marsh gas, all fighting to rise above the dominant strain of pine emanated by the air-freshener suspended from the rearview mirror. Feel your hands hot on that cracking artificial-leather steering wheel? Taste the vinegar-salt aftermusk of a country ham-and-egg biscuit? Then you’re probably well along the road to St. Arkansas—with a sense of what a remarkable place it’s gonna be when you get there.

Pere Ubu’s 12th studio record is, in short, a creative masterpiece, a nigh-unto-perfect collection of 10 well-written, brilliantly played and crisply recorded songs, each of them solid enough to invite repeated listens, each of them rich enough to make such return visits rewarding. Many of Ubu’s trademark sounds (David Thomas’ always-distinctive warbling, nasal vocal style, squiggly EML synthesizer and theremin fills, fluid bass lines mixed to the fore atop metronomic drum cadences) are evident on St. Arkansas, but the sonic palette is expanded, too, in a variety of effective and exciting ways. Organ plays (no pun intended) an important role in this record’s fever-dream flavor, and haunting piano melodies or nearly subliminal, finger-picked, minor-key guitar figures are as likely to augment each song’s mood as are the expected synthetics.

St. Arkansas is the second studio work from what has become the longest-standing incarnation of Pere Ubu, Cleveland’s (if not the world’s) most successfully unsuccessful rock band. Thomas, prodigal founding guitarist Tom Herman, bassist Michele Temple, keyboardist Robert Wheeler and drummer Steve Mehlman (aided and abetted by studio guitarist-organist Jim Jones) have now been playing together since 1995. There’s a deep sense of creative fluidity and musical intuition evident on this record that seems to have grown from such (relative) stability in a group long dogged by personnel (not to mention record-label) turnover.

Recorded by Thomas and longtime engineer Paul Hamann at the group’s beloved Suma studio in Cleveland, with an ice-dry sonic style that enhances the album’s sweat-inducing musical miasma, this record is as organic and positively lived-in-sounding as anything by Ubu since 1978’s Dub Housing. That latter record has long been recorded by many Ubuphiles and music critics alike as the group’s defining work, but to this particular listener’s ears (and eyes, mouth, nose and hands), St. Arkansas now defines the new standard of excellence for Pere Ubu—and for anyone else foolish enough to attempt to give ’em a run for their money down one of their beloved American byways.

—J. Eric Smith

Bill Frisell
:Rarum (ECM)

Sharing its title with other collections in a new series from the ECM label, this set offers selections featuring guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, appearing both as leader and sideman. It documents a startlingly broad range of music from his own boisterous and gleeful horn-infused “Resistor” to the quietly regal “Mandeville” recorded with Paul Motian’s band. There’s the icy Northern serenity of “Singsong,” recorded with the Jan Garbarek Group, and the mournful lilt of “Alien Prints” with his own band.

While Frisell has gone on to create a large and rich catalog for Nonesuch Records (including the newly released The Willies), his work with ECM shows him as a young man, confident and eager to experiment—a trait he’s carried throughout his career. He’s a sympathetic improviser, able to let loose both large sheets of sound and beautifully whispered passages from his guitars. The booklet includes Frisell’s own notes on the pieces and his collaborators.

—David Greenberger

Solomon Burke
Don’t Give Up on Me (Anti/Epitaph)

About two-thirds through “Fast Train,” one of two superb Van Morrison songs on this extraordinary disk, Solomon Burke sings so powerfully, he lifts you off your feet. Burke’s vivid baritone, never less than inspiring, infuses Morrison’s urgent, cautionary tale with that full measure of luminescence available only to the greatest soul singers. At 62, Burke may be singing even better than he did in the ’60s, when he delivered such classics of country-flecked blues as “Cry to Me” and “Down in the Valley” for Atlantic Records. Although he’s a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, he is far from a relic: This spare, elegantly textured and imaginatively sequenced album burns with vitality.

Burke’s protean, deeply persuasive voice is magnificently showcased on this collection of songs by the best contemporary writers, including Bob Dylan (the crafty shuffle, “Stepchild”), Nick Lowe (the barroom ballad “The Other Side of the Coin”), Elvis Costello (the eccentric, courtly “The Judgment”) and Dan Penn (the heart-rending title track). The key tune is the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil-Brenda Russell “None of Us Are Free,” an anthem Burke sings with the Blind Boys of Alabama, rocking & rolling our hearts with its beautifully articulated message of liberation. There are numerous potential hits here, including the grammatically shaky, emotionally true “None of Us,” Brian Wilson’s gorgeous cheek-to-cheeker “Soul Searchin’ ” and the implacably grungy Dylan. This album breathes; recorded live, all the musicians working together in real time, in four days at the legendary Sunset Sound studios, it’s profoundly moving, authentic and contemporary. Produced with respect, imagination and restraint by Joe Henry (who contributes the remarkable “Flesh and Blood”), Don’t Give Up on Me isn’t a plea, but a command. It’s your loss if you don’t listen.

—Carlo Wolff

Wetwerks (Hydrostatic)

Out of Nassau, N.Y., comes one of the more coherent pieces of heavy-duty electronica the area has seen in a few years. While news is that these lads are currently working on the West Coast with producer Rae Dileo of Filter and Rollins fame, this 2001 self-titled release is a competent stroke into realms both commercial and experimental.

It would be misleading, however, to classify the effort as industrial or electronic, although it appears that is where they are headed. Rather, Wetwerks is simply a riff-laden powerhouse, with Godzilla bass lines and well-meshed live drumming embellished with Roland V-Drums. The axes are somewhat overprocessed, but this does little to diminish the aural assault. These guys are not afraid of effects pedals. “What I’m Not” and opener “You Know” advance nicely textured melodies, and all tools are ferociously wielded to produce instantly memorable portraits of frustration and self-reflection.

Sadly, the rap-style vocals employed in “Cairo,” “Hydrostatic” and others, while not total white-bread, area by now a well-worn medium to help deliver such a promising payload. On the whole, though, the CD is a coherent, cerebral bit of burnage. Expect the next one to be mighty.

—Bill Ketzer

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