In 2003, the epochal proto-punk band Rocket From The Tombs reformed and laid down Rocket Redux, an album comprising proper studio versions of the group’s widely bootlegged 1974-75 repertoire. The problem is, many of those songs had long ago been cannibalized and owned by the two bands RTFF begat, Dead Boys and Pere Ubu, which makes Redux feel more like a tombstone than a rebirth. But Redux did serve a purpose: It spurred original members David Thomas, Cheetah Chrome, and Craig Bell (along with new recruits Steve Mehlman of Pere Ubu and Richard Lloyd of Television) to roll up their sleeves and write some fresh tunes. The result is Barfly, RFTT’s official full-length debut—a milestone that should have been reached 37 years ago. It was worth the wait.
The most distinctive thing about RFTT is also Pere Ubu’s sole constant: Thomas’ poetic angularity and eerie, contorted squeal. When scraped against the numbskull guitar of pummeling cuts like “I Sell Soul” and “Anna,” Thomas’ voice takes on an unearthly friction and tension. But now as then, Thomas doesn’t carry RFTT. In spite of Lloyd’s accomplishments over the decades, he has a big guitar case to fill—that of famed RTFF/Ubu founder Peter Laughner, who died in 1977. Lloyd’s elegant jangle steps out on “Birth Day,” “Romeo And Juliet,” and especially the lopsidedly psychedelic “Six And Two.” For the most part, though, the guitar maestro appears to be having a blast just bashing away behind Chrome’s primeval art-garage assault. And what an assault it is: Even when playing pretty on the song called “Pretty,” Chrome’s delicate yet ham-fisted riffage feels like a caveman caressing a kitten. There are moments of eroded aimlessness to Barfly, but they’re few and far between. What’s left is a fierce, simmering, ghost-steeped album that finally gives form to one of rock’s great unresolved mysteries.