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Posted on October 17th, 2011 (2:49 pm) by Joseph Bogen

In the 00s, all of those punk, post-punk and proto-punk bands that had never enjoyed much commercial success finally realized their reputations and commercial viability had grown to levels that made reunions viable. Bands like The New York Dolls, The Stooges, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, Wire and The MC5 all either re-united entirely or re-formed under drastically altered lineups and began performing and recording again. One band, though, stood out above the rest: Rocket From the Tombs. RFTT had never released any music in their short lifespan, but out of their ashes rose two revered bands, Pere Ubu and The Dead Boys. And with the posthumous release in 2002 of The Day the Earth Met The Rocket From the Tombs, it became painfully clear that this group had achieved unappreciated greatness of the likes never seen before.

So in retrospect, the reunion was inevitable. In 2003, the group added Steve Mehlman from Pere Ubu on drums and the guitar legend Richard Lloyd from Television and toured the country. I was, of course, elated. But by the time I left their Austin performance, the elation was gone. The performance probably the biggest debacle I’ve ever witnessed. To be fair, half of the fault lied with the audience, not the band. This was a cold winter night, and some assholes thought it was a good idea to throw ice and booze at both the band and the audience. The five middle aged men on stage were predictably not amused. I couldn’t really blame them for threatening to quit the show, and to their credit, they actually came back, started over and played a lot better. But Dave Thomas was sitting down, drinking from a flask and scowling at the audience before any of the rowdiness started. He still sits when he performs with Pere Ubu, but with RFTT, he clearly had no interest in performing.

Looking back, this was always one of the more doomed reunions. While RFTT’s new lineup consisting of three original members was less compromised than the MC5 (who were missing their lead singer and best guitarist and songwriter) and the New York Dolls (who have basically just become David Johansen’s backing band), they were still missing the most important band member: Peter Laughner. Laughner was perhaps the strongest voice in Rocket From the Tombs; only Thomas held as much creative sway. Laughner died in 1977 after only recording a couple of singles with Pere Ubu. He left behind him probably the most impressive un-released body of work ever created by any rock musician. With RFTT and Pere Ubu, he had been responsible for some of early punk rock’s most legendary songs, including “Ain’t It Fun” and “Sonic Reducer” which were both later adopted by The Dead Boys. And without Laughner, the RFTT reunion was left without any voice to balance against Thomas.

Which brings us to why Barfly, the first album of original material from the reconstituted RFFT, is so profoundly depressing. With nothing distinguishing this from a Pere Ubu album or even some of Thomas’ solo work, this album proves that RFTT without Laughner is little more than a sick joke. “I Sell the Soul” opens the album, and I guess the title is designed to evoke the 13th Floor Elevators, but musically, it has more in common with Pere Ubu’s Why I Hate Women. It’s a lurching pop-rock song that has no bite. But compared to “Birth Day”, it’s the punk anthem of the century. Part of the problem is the mix; the guitars are not given much of a chance to make an impression, but that doesn’t excuse RFTT for doing nothing to distinguish themselves musically from anyone else Thomas has played with over the last several years. Consequently, this album is just as lacking in the same energy and intensity you would expect from RFTT as the most recent Pere Ubu albums.

This isn’t to say that the music on here is bad. In fact, Barfly is vastly superior to Pere Ubu’s last album, Long Live Pere Ubu (this however, is faint praise since Long Live Pere Ubu is nearly unlistenable and easily the worst Pere Ubu album by a mile). At its worst, Barfly is just too tame. At its best moments though, there are some strong pop-rock songs. Romeo & Juliet” (another song title that evoking a '60s garage rock classic) has a certain shambling, depressed beauty to it that I really like. And I’m sure I’d love Lloyd’s solo if it were further up in the mix. And “Sister Love Train” is kind of fun, if a bit light and inconsequential.

Thomas probably deserves the bulk of the blame for neutering RFTT. I don’t expect him to become Crocus Behemoth (his stage name with the original RFTT) again, but there’s nothing about his lyrical or vocal approach suggesting he’s treating this any differently from a Pere Ubu album. On “Butcherhouse 4” he whispers half of his vocals in a way that evokes some of the most tedious recent Pere Ubu tracks. Usually, when an artist performs under two band names, they are exploring two distinct styles or approaches. This doesn’t appear to be the case with Thomas.

The total artistic failure is even more baffling in light of the fact that RFTT is maybe one of the more defensible reunions, at least with respect to the band member’s motivations. It seems strange to think that Thomas could sell more albums or concert tickets than with Pere Ubu, an established and respected band that actually released albums during its life. There’s really no reason to think that this is a cash in. If it is, it’s one of the more pathetic ones. And in a strange way, it serves as a kind of tribute to Peter Laughner: without him, Rocket From The Tombs will never be great again.

Track List:
1. I Sell Soul
2. Birth Day
3. Anna
4. Butcherhouse 4
5. Romeo & Juliet
6. Sister Love Train
7. Love Train Express
8. Good Times Never Roll
9. Six And Two
10. Maelstrom
11. Pretty

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