Pere Ubu's new album, Carnival of Souls, is a reference to the 1962 cult horror film. But as Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker hears it, the band, led since the late '70s by co-founder David Thomas, has created something far more rich, experimental, and emotional than spooky, horror-movie music.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new album from the band Pere Ubu is called "Carnival Of Souls," a reference to the 1962 cult horror film. But as rock critic Ken Tucker hears it, the band. led since the late '70s by cofounder David Thomas, has created something far more rich, experimental and emotional than spooky horror-movie music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROAD TO UTAH")
PERE UBU: (Singing) Follow the moon. Drive under the sea. Fiction is swallowing me. I say here I am, the sea is gone. Tide is pulling me on, is pulling me on. I hear 15 monkeys with carnival eyes. My head is full of spies. Nothing to show for, nothing to choose, so I follow the clues.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I follow the clues, sings David Thomas on the new Pere Ubu album "Carnival Of Souls." It's a kind of road trip detective story about, as the band says on its website, people who don't fit in. On one level, Pere Ubu has never fit in to music industry since it emerged from Ohio in the 1970s. It's assiduously abrasive, pugnacious, yet fundamentally romantic music at odds with anything popular at the moment. On the other hand, Pere Ubu, with a shifting lineup averaging about a half dozen members, has made music for 40 years now that sounds eternally fresh no matter which album you pick up to listen to. However democratic he insists on trying to position Pere Ubue, David Thomas remains the center of this storm. And he is steeped in the blues, early rock 'n' roll and art rock with a particular interest in the British and the German. Thomas' voice is Pere Ubu's signature sound - it's grave, wily, sly insistences are immediately hypnotic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARNIVAL")
PERE UBU: (Singing) The monkey is loose inside my head. His eyes are green, the coat he wears is read. On the days that he talks to me, this is what he has said, hang on. Hang on. Ninety-six years will burn your cheeks. Ninety-six tears, it's going to stain your breast.
TUCKER: The songs on "Carnival Of Souls" are studded with references to other songs - Question Marks And The Mysterians' "96 Tears" in the one I just played. In others, phrases from Screamin' Jay Hawkins "I Put A Spell On You" and Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line" bubble up and burst in. The 12-minute piece that ends the album called "Brother Ray" plays on Ray Charles' nickname, as well the Velvet Underground song "Sister Ray." And "Irene" is Pere Ubu's gorgeous variation on the song made famous by Lead Belly, "Good Night Irene."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IRENE")
PERE UBU: (Singing) Good night, Irene. You are the prettiest thing that I've ever seen, Irene. I'd see the sunlight is in your eyes. But I know the moon is on your mind, Irene.
TUCKER: For all its fondness for quotation and allusion, Pere Ubu isn't interested in pastiche or an attaching itself to a tradition. David Thomas addresses this question directly on the band's website. And in a recent video you can see on YouTube, in which he asserts Pere Ubu fixes things. That's what we do. He elsewhere says Pere Ubu currently aims to be the white "Funkadelic." Well, make a few more songs like this new blast of noise - "Golden Surf II" - and he's well on his way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDEN SURF II")
PERE UBU: (Singing) I have a map I make inside my head. A map only shows you what you already know. Where shall we go? Where shall we go?
TUCKER: Ultimately, "Carnival Of Souls" is a series of scenes about a figure roaming across a barren landscape in the broiling sun or wandering through city streets at night, looking for clues to a mystery that may exist only inside his head. It's a dreamscape that's never dreamy. Its hard-boiled, hardheaded stuff. It's music made to endure. After all, Pere Ubu's latest motto is a Latin phrase that roughly translates as art is forever, the audience comes and goes.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Pere Ubu's new album "Carnival Of Souls." Coming up, our TV critic, David Bianculli, reviews the return of "The Good Wife," and the premier of the new series "Madam Secretary." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.