Everyone Is Crazy in a One Man Show (Codgers on the Moon)

We know Major Tom's a Barcalounger.Codgers on the Moon is the first solo album from Charles Bobuck, recently outed member of The Residents.  Randy has already developed a one man show, but it has only seen workshop performances at this time, allowing one to keep believing  the separate personalities is just a one-off conceptual idea.  Codgers, with its broad availability, really drives home the idea that this is really happening.

The album is described as being unexpected – Mr. Bobuck did not expect to have a life outside of The Residents, but one has been thrust upon him.  He thinks a solo album is logically expected of him, so he put one together.  I think that it will be interesting to compare it to a typical Residents release, so that we may attempt to learn what Mr. Bobuck thinks is and is not considered Residents.

Unfortunately that is easier said than done.  Codgers sounds like a likely progression from recent Residents projects, in particular (obviously) the instrumental ones.  I think all we can really gather from this is that Mr. Bobuck had been the one interested in creating film scores.

The album has a companion website, which finds me fascinated and uncomfortable in equal measure.  Fascinated because we are getting a behind the scenes look, and uncomfortable for the same reason.  Having an identity, a personality, an established set of values… it just doesn’t seem right to me.  I know this is part of a larger concept of what a “band” means in our culture, but it still makes me uneasy.

Randy is doing this too, to an extent.  He has started his own website which began as a series of ghost stories (a continuation of the Talking Light project) and more recently has branched out into a collection of wildly varying posts.  It seems as though he’s found an outlet for ideas outside of the Residents inner sanctum.  I think the intent is to create a space where he can test out new ideas and gauge reactions from the public – a way to measure interest before dedicating months of work to it.  Whatever receives the most likes will inform the next project.

Though, actually, I don’t entirely believe that.  While The Residents are certainly interested in the collaborative opportunities afforded by the internet, there’s very little in the way of them making use of it.  They put out an open call for artists to create videos for their Commercial Album – and certainly delivered on the proposal – nothing else really feels as interactive as one might have hoped.  The Bunny Boy story ultimately did not seem to be guided by fans; Randy’s Tumblr appears to be a one-way conversation; Bobuck’s Twitter account so far only advertises his new album.

And perhaps that’s entirely intentional.  If Randy Chuck and Bob, as a concept, is a statement on the nature of celebrity, then perhaps it is fitting that, despite having made themselves known to the world, they remain just as inaccessible as ever.  Celebrity personalities are not real – they are stage personae that live in our world.  It’s easy to forget the people on our TVs are imaginary.  It’s been noted many times that television stars are treated more casually than film stars, and it’s supposedly due to the familiarity – these people come into our homes every week, whereas we have to make a special trip to see a movie star.  The Talking Light used this in a skewed sense by setting up a living room on stage.  The audience would have gone out for a special event, but then was invited into a home to watch television.  The lines are blurred and ultimately we find ourselves no closer to the truth.

Except of course for the fact that the truth is precisely as laid out for us.  There is no secret underlying layer of any importance.  But where’s the fun in that?  The Residents faked the Moon landing.  It’s so obvious – those big round astronaut helmets were clearly precursors to the eyeball heads.

Before the Eve of Everlasting Grey (ERA B4-74)

This is not how you get washboard abs.The Residents have launched a new project called ERA, in which they revisit and annotate past periods of their career.  It is not unlike a museum exhibition, complete with exclusive t-shirts available in the gift shop.  The first installment is suitably concerned with the time before they became known as The Residents, here named Pre-sidents to avoid confusion with their post-1974 incarnation.

This particular era holds a place of wonder for fans, because it is at the heart of the mystery that surrounds the group.  Even when you accept that there are no individuals involved in the concept, there’s still a part that wonders “yes, but what about before the concept was formed?  Who was there before it all started?”

That kind of thinking is flawed, of course.  There is no beginning before the beginning.  The Residents as an idea is constantly changing, yes, but The Residents as group of individuals emerged fully formed – that form being void or nothingness.  Of course, the recent Talking Light show directly contradicts this notion.  Now suddenly there is a sense of individual membership, and that is perhaps why they’ve begun this large retrospective project.

The first ERA celebrates a time before the Residents concept took hold.  A more innocent time, perhaps, but definitely more naive.  Who were these people who thought it would be a good idea to hide behind a collective mask? What’s the motive?  To listen to these early recordings, one might think it’s a defense against negative feedback – the number one killer of creativity.  These early songs are not good, and no sane person would fault them for wanting to keep the tracks unreleased.  The ERA website says “Projects from pre-1974 are sketchy and largely personal. The Residents do not generally encourage the inspection of that time.”

But now they’ve been released and laid bare for inspection, so the story must have changed in some way.  It can’t simply be they’ve listened again and thought “hey, this is pretty good after all.”  That certainly happens to many artists, but I don’t think that is the case this time.  First of all, they probably would have released them during the 25th anniversary celebration when they reviewed these recordings looking for suitable material.  Secondly, and most importantly: ugh.  They sound awful.  If anything good was seen in these songs, they’d have been re-recorded and released as new.

No, I think the revelation of identities has unearthed hitherto unseen ego.  Now that there’s a name behind the music, that name wants to show improvement.  “Look how much better I am now,” they seem to say.  This wasn’t possible without identities; any drastically different sound would be attributed to the fluid nature of membership.  “That sounds bad?  Must have been someone else who made it.”  But now the narrative says it’s always been the same people involved, so a new critical lens must be applied.

And the lens starts at the new beginning.  Think of it as a prequel, where we learn what motivated our favorite character to become the hero we love.  Of course, as with all prequels, the inherent problem is that the story doesn’t get interesting until later.  It functions best as historical footnote.

I suppose it’s really a reboot.  Start over, and repaint the canvases in a slightly different way, this time with the foreknowledge of what is to come.  It will allow them to smooth over bumps by making them expected turns.  So while I’m not especially thrilled with this first installment, I am eagerly awaiting future ERA exhibitions.  I don’t think it will necessarily mean loads of unreleased demos from their entire career – most likely the ERA concept is just a compilation with an accompanying narrative; it just so happens that the first era mostly consists of unreleased material.  But there’s plenty of behind the scenes information – historical or newly envisioned – that we’ve yet to see.  The Residents have always been great storytellers, and now they are turning that talent towards their own tale.

A Magic Hide-A-Bed (Coochie Brake)

And so it is written in the book of Bobuck. Aw, man.Coochie Brake, the latest release from The Residents, elicits a murky dread that fits perfectly with its namesake.  The production feels less like a selection of instruments recorded and placed together and more like a musical soup.  Every now and then a particular flavor rises to the surface, but for the most part it sounds like a homogeneous mixture.  That’s not to say the sound is indistinct; rather the timbre of each instrument complements the whole.  I don’t think they’ve achieved such a perfect matching of content and form since Mark of the Mole.

This is particularly evident with the vocals, most of which are in Spanish, which I am no good at decoding when heard (if written I have a better chance, and of course I could also use a dictionary).  This puts me in the position of being unable to critique the lyrics.  It gives me the opportunity, however, to experience this album as non-English speakers might experience their other albums.  But I could get that kind of feeling by listening to any album recorded in a foreign language, so that can’t be their main goal.  I think the stronger intent here is to cast the voice as an instrument rather than a delivery mechanism for words.  We’ve seen them do this in the past, most notably with Eskimo and The Big Bubble, the difference here being that we could gather meaning if we put some effort into it.  So I played the first track for a Spanish-speaking friend to get her insights.

Her first observation, unsurprisingly, was that the vocals were buried and difficult to hear.  She persevered, though, and was able to make out some talk of mirrors and the face we show versus the face we keep inside; how life is precious and all that matters is how we conduct ourselves in the time between birth and death.

The mirror aspect grabs my attention, being as it is a continuation (or as least, dare I say it, a reflection) of the Mirror People segments of the Talking Light show.  Mirrors carry with them a long history of symbolic meaning, one of the most popular stories being that of Narcissus.  I wonder if that association is deliberate?

A few other things are going on here that are worth noting.  First, we are dealing with a trio of Residents instead of the standardized four.  This time, however, Randy is out and Carlos is in, despite Carlos having seemingly retired last year.  Within the narrative of The Residents, is he back or is he just doing a one-off?  Why is Randy not participating in this reunion?  Is there bad blood between the two?

Next, the album is released under the moniker of Sonidos de la Noche, which calls to mind the Combo de Mechanico from High Horses.  I don’t know if there’s anything worth uncovering there; it’s just an observation.  It may just be that Carlos names the side projects.

We are also getting a history lesson with this album.  The Coochie Brake legends are true (meaning the legends exist outside of The Residents; I cannot speak for the truth of the legends themselves).  I’m coming to realize that there’s a lot more truth than fiction in the world of The Residents, especially in the past decade.  It seems that stories and liner notes, starting with Demons Dance Alone, have had a more personal, honest air about them.  Long gone are the fantastical, almost cartoonish stories about the group (the last I can think of right now is from a CD-ROM that described their notes coming in scribbled crayon).  These days the group is being straight with us, or at least no longer running everything through a myth filter.  It could be they decided the old way was immature, or it could be they respect us more, accept us, and no longer need to keep a distance.  Probably a little of both.  At some point we all accept who looks back from the mirror.