The Northeast Ohio punk scene of the mid-'70s encapsulated American punk's midpoint, a transition between the neolithic howling of early '70s Detroit and the art-damaged clatter of late-'70s New York. But no matter how influential the Electric Eels and the Bizarros may have been, Pere Ubu was the better band. Howling and arty from the get-go, the group of introverted misfits was also a unique visionary collective and a middleman to no one.
It bears repeating because, on his past few solo albums, Pere Ubu's high priest, David Thomas, has acted like just that -- a middleman. From his expatriate home in London, Thomas has led a varying lineup in conceptual projects that interpret Middle America for a bohemian European audience, with results as willfully simplistic, smug, and humorless as a German art-house flick about Texas.
But even though Pere Ubu's lineup has changed radically over the years, the group still wields enough power to bring Thomas home for its latest album. Recorded in a Painesville studio with a lineup consisting mostly of Northeast Ohioans, St. Arkansas is as dark and introverted as any Ubu album. And while this may be a welcome change from Thomas's recent pontifications, it's no longer the work of visionaries, but the quirky expressions of aging outcasts. The disc opens slowly, with pitter-patter beats, hypnotic recitatives, and atonal guitar figures, all woven together with creaking synthesizers. The grooves settle in to straight rock only on the last couple of tracks, right before Thomas sinks into despondent anomie on the nine-minute closing anthem, "Dark." The irony, for Thomas, doesn't need underlining: Home is where the heart isn't.