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David Thomas and Two Pale Boys - 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man's Chest

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Artist: David Thomas and Two Pale Boys

Album: 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man's Chest

Label: Smog Veil

Review date: Apr. 24, 2005

“Got a little bit of soul, call it rock and roll” - Numbers Man

In David Thomas’ ever-changing sea of solo groups, the Two Pale Boys configuration is one of his longest running and most productive groups. This may be only the third studio recording since their formation in 1994, but the trio setting seems to give him much more room to explore his single-minded creative whimsies.

While Thomas’ music has always been uniquely nuanced, 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man’s Chest seems to be more obsessive on more levels than any of his other recent work. Repetitions abound throughout, be it as specific as a word or a rhythm, or as general as a narrative arc or a structural conceit. Often times a song will form around a repeated word over swirling accompaniment, or a single chord or riff with changing vocals flowing around them. The only real point of comparison from his oeuvre is the closer of Pere Ubu’s last record, "Dark,” which repeats a scant few lyrics over almost 10 minutes of droning repetition.

This obsession manifests itself in two drastically conflicting moods: heavy, up-tempo rock songs, and slower, murkier ones. Though the album tends to favor the more atmospheric numbers, it's the more rocking tunes that pack the strongest punch. Somehow the ensemble of melodeon, guitar/violin, and trumpet creates the full texture of a rock song, though trying to trace all the sounds in “Numbers Man” to just those instruments on their own is a stretch, its aural swirl is so dense and varied. On the slower songs, that density gets splayed over a much larger area, allowing individual instruments and timbres to stand out and carry the mood for little bits. Thomas’ words also become much more obsessive, often cycling through permutations of a single phrase, which when combined with the surrounding music, creates a sense of severe dislocation.

As always, Thomas’ vocals go through different characters depending on what he’s singing. The overriding trend, though, is toward normalcy. On the most recent Pere Ubu and Rocket from the Tombs records, Thomas seemed to sing entirely through his nose, but here, he is almost entirely full-throated, even using a regular speaking voice, sounding strangely like Robert Ashley in “Golden Surf.” After so many years of vocalizing, he clearly knows which manner of singing will fit the present project.

It’s always hard, if not impossible to predict where the madness/genius of David Thomas will take us next, but each place he goes is just as intriguing as the last. We can only hope that as he continues through his fourth decade of music, he never runs out of strange places to take us.

By Dan Ruccia

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