NME 3/14/98, p.49
This is Pere Ubu's world. It's not similar to the one you know and love.
Metroland (Albany NY), J. Eric Smith, 12/23/98
Top 10 National Albums of 1998
2. Pere Ubu, "Pennsylvania" (Tim/Kerr)
Cleveland's journeymen noisemakers create the year's best road record, filling it with strange moments, odd sounds and bittersweet stories-- all of which will resonate deeply if you've ever spent too many late nights drinking strong coffee in interstate truck stops.
Greil Marcus, "Double Trouble" (Faber and Faber, 2000), pages 167-168.
Thomas' gnostic argument-- that art exists to at once reveal secrets and to preserve them-- makes sense of a particularly American - or modern - form of storytelling. In a big, multifaceted democracy, you're supposed to be able to communicate directly with everyone, yet many despair of being understood by anyone at all.
Out of this comes an American language that means to tell a story no one can turn away from. But this language-- identified by D. H. Lawrence in 1923, in Studies in Classic American Literature, as the true modernist voice, the voice of Hawthorne, Poe, Melville-- is cryptic before it is anything else. It is all hints and warnings, and the warnings are disguised as non sequiturs. The secret is told, but nonetheless hidden, in the musings, babblings, or tall tales of people who seem too odd to be like you or me, like us-- like the author who puts his or her name to the story, insisting that he made it all up, that she just did it for the money.
"The whole existence of such people is premised on their attempt to tell a secret, perhaps to discover the secret in the telling, in the stunned, shocked response the telling provokes-- and their idea of democracy is premised on the conviction that no one can be at home in a place where it is presumed there are no secrets, that all reality is transparent, that all people are the same. Thus those who tell this story, who want desperately to be heard, will likely mistrust even an imaginary audience. If they are like Thomas on Pere Ubu's Pennsylvania, they'll create an aura of portent and unease, but mostly, as it were, sinistramente, with the left hand; by means of unfinished sentences, dead-end monologues, floating images, outmoded phrases, archaic pronunciations, a tone of voice that is blank and addled by turn.."
The tenor of all the wistful, vaguely paranoid tales of displacement on Pennsylvania - tales of abandoning the Interstate highways, getting lost, and finding the perfect town when it's too late to change your life and live in it - is caught in the weirdly menacing way Thomas pronounces "Los Angeles" in the tune "Highwaterville." It's the old flophouse way, the way Anjelica Huston's character speaks the name in The Grifters, with a hard 'g' and a long 'e' at the end, so that the place sounds like a disease. The same sense of the strange, the unacceptable, in the familiar is there in "Mr Wheeler," which sounds like an old tape of a very old telephone call, a tape that showed up in a box in a room in a house where no one has lived for 20 years. "Uh, Mr. Wheeler?" somebody says; as with every bit of talk in the number, it's followed by a long instrumental passage, as if some great drama is taking shape around a story that will never be put back together...
What comes into view is a secret country: Barely recognizable, and undeniable. And it's a thrill to hear, now, all of David Thomas's voices swirling around the listener, on the street. Pennsylvania seems to draw out of its own spectral geography and that street can be wherever you find yourself...
Metroland (Albany NY), J. Eric Smith, 5/28/98
While Pennsylvania bears many of the edgy sonic tags that so define Pere Ubu music, it's that laconic story-teller's depiction of a time remembered and a place defined that stays with you once the record itself finally winds down. Call it tomorrow's folk music...
splendid e-zine, George Zahora, 5/11/98
After the intensity of 1995's Raygun Suitcase, fans might find Pennsylvania a bit jarring -- half of it is the loud, [censored] rock they love, complete with abrupt invasions by harmonica, keyboard, theremin and so forth, but the other half is a sort of alternate universe Delta blues fusion thing that works, brilliantly, because this is Pere Ubu and everything they do works, brilliantly.
Mojo, Joe Cushley, April '98
For nigh on 25 years Pere Ubu have harassed America... They celebrate their near silver anniversary of artistic dysfunctionality with a truth-defining album... Ubu are generally regarded as the missing link between the Velvets and punk. From the beginning they obviously understood the nuts and bolts of popular music, and then loosened them. For example, Pennsylvania seems to deliberately echo Springsteen's Nebraska, while tracks like Muddy Waters fortify the sense that they are the inheritors of the Guthrie-Beefheart line: a metal-collar version of The Boss's blue-collar vision.
SF Weekly, Mark Athitakis, Apr 6-14, '98
Before and since Dub Housing, for nearly 25 years, songwriter and vocalist Thomas has leapfrogged across genres and side projects, from the rough-hewn experimentalist rock he called "avant-garage" to the crafty pop of Ubu's highly underrated 1989 Cloudland. Both of these musical roads, and a few others, collide on the sharp, sinister Pennsylvania... Brows furrowed the band goes about the business of constructing a road map, a catalog of people and places... the group conveys a scarifying nervousness about the world throughout the record. Except that its nervousness isn't willfully experimental, difficult, or forced. Indeed, what's most striking about Pennsylvania is just how tuneful and honest it is, catchy while retaining its offhanded feel. The musicians-- particularly Robert Wheeler's haunting synthesizer and theremin, and Steve Mehlman's loose, evocative drumming-- approach the music artfully, but passionately. It's thinking man's rock, sure, but it's also the sound of a brilliant rock band creating great music the way it's always been done.
New York Times, Greil Marcus, "Powerless to Forget an Afternoon When Time Froze", 2/23/98
Pere Ubu may be a better band today than it has ever been: funnier, more doom struck and more passionate. Mr. Thomas's voice is that of a man muttering in a crowd. You think he's talking to himself until you realize he's talking to you.
All across "Pennsylvania," people turn off the main roads and find themselves in towns whose names they can't remember." But I do remember the frozen quality of the hours we stayed there," Mr. Thomas recites in "Perfume." He might be guiding you back by means of a 1940's film noir voice-over, through the wreckage of what seemed like a good idea at the time. That's the feeling: a loser who's come to grips with the fact that he'll never win, but who remembers how perfect the plan was.
The Wire, Edwin Pouncey, March '98
It is hard to not be moved by their huge surges of power and passion. The greatest thing about Pennsylvania, though, is how Pere Ubu suck you in and hold you fast, and for 70 minutes you're convinced that they're the greatest out-rock 'n' roll group of this millennium, and probably the next.
Sunday Times, Mark Edwards, 3/1/98
Still straddling the extremes of pure, uncompromising modern art and pure, uncompromising loud rock in the determined effort to meld them into a cohesive whole.