The Birmingham Post
Never has an exclamation mark been so apt in an album title. Surf's Up! finds the Pere Ubu frontman on hallowed ground with a great collection of songs recorded in Hove and Hackney. The heavy metal melodeon opener Runaway sets the scene for an album which always engages sonically and furthers the claim for adoption of Thomas as a major league artist. Cornerstone here is an eight-minute version of Brian Wilson's masterpiece of American dreaming, Surf's Up. Thomas treats it as an alternative National Anthem and wrings every last ounce of pathos from its rambling structure. Elsewhere, tracks like River and Ghosts prove that experimental needn't equate with unapproachable. An optimistic set of songs from a genius.
Time Out, Feb 28 2001, Ross Fortune
Large of girth, round of face, huge in stature and prolific in nature, David Thomas is a self-effacing colossus, a mad-eyed beacon of sanity in a torrid and testy time of blind or blinkered grubbing or grabbing. He doesn't really fit in anywhere. Save for a few years in the late 70s when the avant garage art punk reality dub of Cleveland Ohio's Pere Ubu found a neat-fit home at Rough Trade amid the new wave sprawl of giddy, hoped-up mutant mayhem, he never has.
These days, though Pere Ubu still exist-- seemingly permanent, if occasional and always on the edge-- Thomas mostly does his own thing. Whether it be solo, in collaboration (with the likes of Jackie Leven) or (as here) with his Two Pale Boys (Andy Diagram on trumpet and Keith Moliné on guitars), he is capable of mustering a strange and compelling, potent and provactive sound and songcraft. His distinctive, high, elliptical yelping and distorted voice cuts warm, delicate and terse through a music that simultaneously evokes urban neon and big sky, wide-open, wind-blown flat plain. Among a heady batch of releases bearing his name in recent years, this is probably the best. Puttering, stuttering, squealy and brooding, it is emotive and intense, moody and sublime. Songs loom and swell and slow and fade and rise and fall and kick and catch. It is harrowing and haunting, beautiful and haunted stuff in which to both lose and find yourself.
Daved Hild delivers his verdict from Orlando
While I thought Monster and Meadeville were sensational......SU is
Your vocals are the best ever and the production is a perfect fit.
LOW FI MEETS WHY FI.......A PERFECT RECORD!!!!!!!
The title track BLEW ME AWAY.
KUDOS to Andy and Keith(and Paul).
Heck the people down the block might even upon up their windows this time
and want to LISTEN.
Metro (London), Feb 20 2001, Guy Somerset
Thomas's and Pale Boys Andy Diagram and Keith Moliné's musical settings for their obliquely observed prose poems are almost elemental, evoking exactly the titles of such tracks as Night Driving, River and Ghosts. Most surprising and stunning is their version of Surf's Up, which remains true to, while transfiguring, Brian WIlson and Van Dyke Parks's original and is further evidence Thomas is as much a wayward genius as they are.
TNT, Feb 19 2001
The Guardian, Feb 16 2001, John Aizlewood
CD of The Week
Career-wise, David Thomas was a late starter, not making music until 1975 when, after a brief, appetite-whetting stint in Rocket From the Tombs, he convened and christened (after a character in several of French absurdist Alfred Jarry's plays) Pere Ubu in Cleveland, Ohio. Uninhibitedly prolific, he has been making up for that slow start ever since.
Extraordinary as it seemed then, extraordinary as it seems now, Pere Ubu had a major deal around the turn of the past decade, and a new album is scheduled for August. Thomas, though, has kept his own irrepressible creative fires stoked since 1981 with a series of extra-curricular projects: contrary, variable, but always worthy of consideration. Thomas is, as they say, out there, but that need not mean inaccessible or pretentious. More accurately, there is nobody quite on his wavelength.
First, there is his otherworldly, slightly deranged voice, unchanged since Pere Ubu's ground-breaking art-punk anthem Nonalignment Pact 26 years ago. It bears comparison with no other voice: child-like, full of guilt, pitched somewhere around, although not at, falsetto, but - and this is the fulcrum of his appeal, around which his whole oeuvre pivots - it has a serene, mournful quality. Nick Drake and Ian Curtis had that quality too, but Thomas's palette is broader, his inclination more avant-garde.
That mournful seam courses through Surf's Up! as surely as it coursed through the Two Pale Boys' only other studio collaboration, 1996's anagram of "nowhere", Erewhon (also the name of a book by Samuel Butler). The album's sleeve encapsulates the Thomas dichotomy: the front appears to be a sweet little old lady who could be mistaken for Queen Elizabeth II standing in the desert, seemingly untroubled by anything other than how to spoil her grandchildren. Inside, it transpires that she is directing a pair of trigger-happy rednecks. Ostensibly it doesn't mean anything, but it is unsettling - just like Thomas himself.
Whatever it means (while Thomas's voice never alters, neither does his indecipherability), Man in the Dark Suit sounds like the soundtrack to a close friend's funeral. Andy Diagram's trumpet (one half of the Two Pale Boys with guitarist Keith Moline) and Thomas's wheezing melodeon give it the timbre of a waltzing brass band as it oozes lonesomely across its haunting six-and-a-half minutes. It's up there with Thomas's best work - Nonalignment Pact, and We Have the Technology from 1988's The Tenement Year - but Thomas has never been quite such an effective heartbreaker. Perhaps an old dog can embrace new tricks after all.
Forgivably, he never quite scales such emotional heights again, but the seven remaining tracks have much to commend them. The version of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks's title track is instrumental for the opening 90 seconds of its eight minutes, cooking up a mellow storm until Thomas bursts quietly in, understanding both Wilson's musical madness and Parks's lyrical acuity. It sounds nothing like the original of course, but the spirit is identical and that ought to be what counts.
Elsewhere, both Runaway and Spider in My Stew rumble with an insistent funk backbeat, but Night Driving hurtles into a freeform netherworld and shuffles away at the end with Thomas snarling "Sucker! See you around". His strengths are based on feel, tone and a homely melody, but he can do malevolence as well as lost innocence and his hissing is all the more effective for its infrequent appearances.
In the typically peculiar but typically hummable Ghosts, Thomas talks his way through an elusive tale as if he is drowning. "I know," he whispers, "and I don't know. I know. And I don't know." You know what he means. And yet you don't know what he means.The truth may never emerge, but it's in there somewhere.
River, the album's centrepiece, takes nearly 10 epic but unhurried minutes to explain itself. It's as ominous as Nick Cave and as hypnotic as Spiritualised, but for all the things he's given and despite those he has taken, Thomas will always remain the plump, besuited outsider, resembling everyone and no one.
The Independent, Feb 16 2001, Andy Gill
The perennial maverick spirit, David Thomas currently pursues several parallel musical careers, combining his long-standing role as helmsman of the legendary avant-rockers Pere Ubu, with more frequent outings taken in the company of the guitarist Keith Moliné and the trumpeter Andy Diagram, late of James. But then, if any artist is big enough to cope with two careers, it's the former Crocus Behemoth. "Outings" is the operative word here, as Surf's Up! continues the vein of peripatetic reflections that produced both Ubu's Pennsylvania from 1998 and Thomas's 1999 live album Mirror Man, with tracks like "Runaway" and "Night Driving" evoking the restless pioneer spirit and wide-open spaces of the American psyche, and "River" delineating the dark currents separating the singer from a people whose "faces are haunted, [and] their houses are haunted as well". Always sensitive to his surroundings, and to the distance between people, Thomas's sojourns seem coloured by the conflict between his own inquisitiveness and the suspicion with which it's greeted, he being the exemplary outsider who's obviously "not from around these parts", wherever he may be. "They leave the lights on in this town all night, for fear of the darkness," he observes in "Ghosts", the menacing intimacy of his delivery underscored by spooky slide guitar and inebriated trumpet. But it's not entirely sinister territory he traverses here: the undertow of absurdist humour that marks all Thomas's work helps lighten the gloomier corners of Surf's Up!, while the title-track itself brings a deeper pathos to the Beach Boys classic than even Brian Wilson envisaged. The trio's musical range confounds the apparent restrictions of their line-up, with both Moliné and Diagram employing batteries of effects to build up banks of different instrumental voices with which to accompany Thomas's vocals and lowing melodeon (a kind of accordion). So inventive is their approach that in some cases, it's virtually impossible to tell which of them is producing a particular sound. And while both Pale Boys are individually capable of searing solos - Diagram's cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof break in "Runaway" is particularly thrilling - they also know when to keep it simple, and when not to play at all: the most moving piece on the album, "Come Home/Green River", is also the most minimal, with the drone of melodeon matched by a persistent one-note guitar presence and trumpet monotones that swell out in waves, producing an effect akin to the horns on Love's Forever Changes. An object lesson in the art of balancing methods and means, from a modern master.
The Wire, Feb 2001, Don Watson
Although it is difficult to imagine Ubu having employed a banjo, the sheer attack of opening track "Runaway" creates the same rattling resonance with the human skeleton as the corrosive "Non-Alignment Pact" managed all those years ago... "Man In The Dark combines Thomas's characteristic eccentric invention with a genuinely heartbreaking melody in a manner that recalls and then surpasses Swordfishtrombones period Tom Waits. Thomas's vision is more garish, more disturbing than Waits' perfectly crafted sepia portraits, and it is just as moving... Indeed, he shares with the film maker [David Lynch] the ability to parody a genre while simultaneously unlocking its forgotten power. This is precisely the effect he creates with the self-conscious noirisms of "Night Driving" and "Ghosts", in which his superbly evocative language flickers past like road signs. The version of The Beach Boys' "Surf's Up" fulfills the promise contained in Wilson's own voice and piano version from the discarded Smile album, revealing just how emotive Thomas's voice can be, over a spare soundscape created by Pale Boy guitarist Keith Moliné and trumpeter Andy Diagram, who provide superb backdrops of light and shadow throughout...Amazing