David Thomas and two pale boys

Surf's Up! US Press

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Signal To Noise, Bill Meyer
Twenty five years into his career, vocalist David Thomas has worked his way through several sets of themes... lately he's used archetypal images of 20th century America to explore the distance between contemporary reality and cherished memory. He sings about the road, the neon and mountains you see from it, the black coffee you drink beside it, but he's really singing about what it's like to feel at odds with the world you live in, a world stripped of the landmarks that once defined it. You can't go home again if the bridge you took to get there and the buildings you saw every day have been torn down; even if new ones have gone up the journey's changed, the places are gone, time has moved on. Trumpeter Andy Diagram and guitarist Keith Moline use the wide electronic spectrum between cheap radio parts and sophisticated MIDI interfaces to transform their two instruments into a multi-voiced pocket orchestra that shivers and pulses around Thomas's one-of-a-kind voice, which negotiates memorable melodies with the unlikely grace of a bumblebee.

Interview, Greil Marcus, March 2001
Stories emerge like ghosts on Thomas's new album with his spin-off group, Two Pale Boys (Keith Moliné, guitar and electronics, and Andy Diagram, trumpet and electronics): Surf's Up! What Thomas is after, he says, is like the moment in an old radio play "in which you hear a creak or or sigh and see immediately without verbal description Philip Marlowe's office with dust motes frozen in venetian blind light."

"Runaway" is just a few lines summoning up a scene from Chandler's 1949 murder mystery "The Little Sister" (the movie, with James Garner as Marlowe, isn't bad)—a scene that isn't in the novel, but catches every page of it. A strangled voice tells the little sister her brother Ray's calling— and you know, before you know anything else, that Ray is already dead. The music roars past the story with a tremendous sense of excitement, of engines gunning and then cars roaring out into the desert to get the money Ray left behind.

As film-noir thrilling as the black-and-white "Runaway" is, the last track on Surf Up!, "Come Home/Green River," all faded colors like the '50s movie stills on the Surf's Up! sleeve (a rough,mean-looking middle-aged woman, then the same woman watching with approval as her two strapping young sons fire pistols in the desert), is much stronger. Like "Night Driving" ("See ya around, sucker!" Thomas exhales—that's the sigh he's talking about), or "Spider in My Stew" (where the creak Thomas talks about is in the creepily repetitive beat, like an unignorable scratching at a doorjamb, a sound you have to stop, and also a sound that tells you you're better off not knowing who's making it), "Come Home/Green River" calls up an ambiance, begins to let a story tell itself. It begins to let you tell yourself the story. Somehow, as you listen, the music, Thomas's voice, the words he's singing, become more and more abstract—but what you're hearing is utterly specific.

Despite what Thomas once said about David Lynch wanting "small town America to be about weirdness and decay" because it "justifies [his] own life choices," much of Surf's Up! could be a soundtrack for Lynch's Lost Highway: a soundtrack so evocative that if the music had come first there would have been no reason for the movie to have been made. But after all the nihilist rushing and speeding of the music that's come before, with "Come Home/Green River," the story has pulled over to the side of the road. The singer—or the listener—has gotten out of the car, to take a look around, to decide whether to go on or turn back. "I know this guy," Thomas is saying in a weird, decaying voice, a voice filtered through a vocoder or something like it, this guy who'd "get in his Coupe de Ville, roll the windows up and drive—air conditioner full blast." It was a question of voices, Thomas is explaining: "he'd drive so as not to hear them—air conditioner, windows up."

Billboard, Feb 10 2001
Even in the midst of Pere Ubu's proto-industrial futurism, the Cleveland avant-rockers retained the core values embodied in the Platonic three-minute pop song (nicely demonstrated on the group's recently issued Thirsty Ear live set, "Apocalypse Now," a small masterpiece recorded in 1991). Bandleader David Thomas has pushed the envelope in myriad solo projects over the years. With Two Pale Boys-- trumpeter Andy Diagram and guitarist Keith Moliné adding to the leader's free-floating vocals and melodeon-- he seeks pop-art bliss via spontaneity and space, with songcraft still in mind. As an ideal exemplar of this aesthetic, the title track transforms the Golden State poetry of Brian WIlson / Van Dyke Parks classic into a twilight dirge. The original vessel may be stretched, but the charm and beauty flow unimpeded, now unencumbered by time. The engaging originals are folk-art nocturnes, evocatively off-kilter. Beyond the Ubu faithful, fans of artists as diverse as Brian Eno and Tom Waits will hear a kindred spirit here.