I Thought This Was a Strange Arrangement (Wonder of Weird)

It's Christmas in Hell, all the children scream.The Residents have produced a new show as Randy, Chuck, and Bob, though now we know a tiny bit more about them.  (There’s actually quite a bit more we know, because although this CD has just been released, there is already a third show – Shadowland –  but all things in due time.)   Randy is Randy R. Rose, Chuck is Charles Bobuck, and Bob is Lionel.  We know this from online extensions of the concept, specifically the blogs of the first two.

And that’s the first weirdness we are to wonder at:  Residents with personalities, real lives, friends and family.  It appeared to be a joke when first presented, but the continuation forces us to look more critically.  They almost seem like the rest of us, though perhaps a distorted mirror image of what we are.  Randy’s life is clearly exaggerated, but probably holds a seed of truth.  As for Charles, very little of what he writes feels out of the ordinary, so indeed it’s possible that it’s all a lie.  Regardless of the veracity of the events they describe, I believe the expressed inner thoughts and temperaments are genuine.

Despite this more open nature, the new show does take one step to further distance the audience.  With The Talking Light, we were invited into their living room for an evening of stories, but we must view Wonder of Weird from the front lawn, among the various Christmas decorations, and the stories are reduced to a single teller and subject.  This may be an indication that the audience has grown so big that they can no longer fit inside, but the result is the same: the intimacy has been reduced.

Musically this show is a continuation: old songs with new arrangements, so different in fact that they should probably be considered new songs.  On that front The Residents present a rather interesting inversion of what’s become a standard practice.  Often, extreme arrangements are done as a postmodern joke: “ha ha, you’ve turned that pop song into a dirge,” or “ha ha, that heavy metal song is now a chamber choir piece.”  But the only response one can make to these songs is “wow, this is new.”  So indeed they get to have it both ways: play the hits the audience wants to hear, but continue creating new material.  And this is not unique in the world of music.  I think the best example is Eric Clapton’s rewrite of “Layla,” which drastically altered the mood, and thus meaning, of the song.  But I can think of no recent example that isn’t in some part played for that novelty aspect.

The through line of this show is an oral history of the band (quite suitable since this is billed as a 40th anniversary show), interrupted by a personal tragedy in Randy’s life.  This basic model of a planned story getting unexpectedly overturned was used as far back as the Mole Show, and has served them well on many occasions since.  I miss the selection of short videos from Talking Light – I felt they showcased a very strong side of the group – storytelling – but in bite size pieces better suited for a rock show environment.

But Randy’s narration turns into a very intimate moment –  a man’s need to love and be loved, be it through a string of wives or a pet cat.  Maurice the cat has been featured on Randy’s blog, so while prior reading is not necessary for this show, it certainly adds another layer of detail.  What other group provides such intertextuality with their work?  The Residents reward the loyal fans by giving this nod, making it feel okay and not at all silly to follow the blog of a possibly fictional person.

And that’s really the message of the show, and of The Residents in general: it’s okay to be weird.  There should be no shame in being different, in having your own style or opinion.  Life is too precious to squander by trying to please everybody.

I Might Survive the Murky Depths (Mush-Room)

Requirements of your fungiculture are not considered cool and dry.The latest project from The Residents, Mush-Room, is a collaboration with Needcompany, a European modern dance troupe. They’ve often worked with dancers in the past, but never to this degree. This is keeping alive the thread of widening the margins of what defines what “Residents” means. Here they’ve created a symbiotic relationship with an external talent, essentially bringing it inside in all but name, and the result is not too far flung from where they would have gone on their own, but is still, undeniably, new territory.

But under the hood we see a further separation. The cover says Residents, but inside the full attribution is: The Residents present a Charles Bobuck contraption. Whether that’s a line in the sand or, given the nature of sand, a delineation that is fleeting at best, I’ve no idea. Again, the exact definition of Resident-ness is liquid – it turns out to have always been so, but that fuzziness has only been made clear in the past decade – so this simultaneous inclusion and exclusion could play out in any way, and may simply be a playful jab at the constant need to apply labels to everything.

I find myself drawn to the hyphenated title. The separation of “room” implicitly (and elegantly, I might add) places all action into a separate world, so even before we see or hear anything of the performance we know we’re dealing with a fantasy setting. I don’t know if the song titles relate to the story or are just fun wordplay – probably a bit of both, and that’s a good sign. It shows that they actively engaged with the story as well as had fun with the creation. And I think that sense of purposeful play comes through in the album. The music is as tribal as it is electronic, recalling at times that modern day masterpiece Animal Lover. It may be true that The Residents have been too prolific in the past decade, putting out more material than can be consumed (and spawning fears they are diluting their creativity), but projects like this are a confirmation that they can still be at the top of their game. Whether that’s due to the collaborative energy or simply the fact that more work produces better work is no matter; The Residents continue to be everything they’ve always been.

However, I feel somewhat at a loss with this recording because I am unable to see the accompanying dance piece. This goes beyond how I perceive a movie score in isolation, somehow, though I am unable to articulate exactly why. I wonder if it has to do with the role music plays in dance vs film. In film, music enhances a scene, adds emotional depth, but it rarely partners equally in the proceedings (movie musicals are a notable exception of course). With dance, music is a true partner, often leading, but it can seem to follow given an excellent choreographer.

Because of the uneven relationship, a film score heard by itself is able to take on its own life, to grab the spotlight far removed from its much more powerful master – almost an act of subversion. But a dance score in the same situation is partnerless, alone. Everything about it reminds you there should be a visual side. The give and take is so prominent that the void is almost palpable. The best one can do is to dance along to the music, in an attempt to restore that which has been taken away.

I was never much of a dancer, and besides my dancing days are far behind me. But I can choreograph my hands and fingers. I can bob a foot or wiggle my nose. Open mouth, close mouth, grin and clap hands. Yes, this is music I can move to. It was created for a specific dance troupe, but was released to the world. Stand up, sit down, move or don’t, but do so with determination and purpose. In short, I give it a 10, Dick.

Something Written on His Wrinkled Skin (Bad Day on the Midway novel)

Book 'em, Danno.Randy Rose has written a novel.  Perhaps it’s a novella – I abandoned both sides of that argument decades ago.  But whatever it is, it’s definitely a long-form story based on the characters and events of Bad Day on the Midway, the CD-ROM The Residents produced back in the 1990s.

I suppose it’s not unlike a movie tie-in novelization, in that it is largely the familiar story but with some elements changed or added.  With movies, it’s usually the case of the author working with an early version of the script (a necessary evil so the book and movie can be released at the same time) and therefore includes dialogue, scenes, and sometimes entire subplots that were cut from the final film.

So here we’re allowed to imagine a situation in which there existed more characters and events than we saw in the game.  That must be the case – there’s no way every idea wound up in the final product – but this book is certainly not that original story.  No, this is a new departure for the project, a practice familiar to The Residents, though I am surprised at how closely it follows the source material.  I would have expected many more new characters and situations, essentially a brand new experience.  But apart from Tebo and the man from the health department there’s really nothing of great note added.  It’s more expanded than reimagined.

Which brings me to the companion CD, which bears the title Bad Day Reimagined.  Under the hood, however, it functions just like the book – the original music is there, but enhanced and expanded, and little has really changed.  Now one could argue the music is wildly different, more so than the book, but that ignores the fact that the book has changed the very medium from nonlinear interaction to standard narrative.  A step back in technology, sure, but an unexpected turn nonetheless.

The book is new, very new. Unlike a movie adaptation based on an early script, this isn’t a look into what might have been.  This is a look into what is.  A novelization was never on the table until recently, so what we have here is a new project with the defining limitation of being based on an earlier work.  Like much of The Residents’ oeuvre, I’m taken more with the concept than the execution.  The Residents are great storytellers, and this is a great story, but unfortunately not a great novel.  It suffers from the dreaded problem of much modern writing: lack of editing.  It’s one thing to proofread, another to edit.  The world is short on editors, partly because of the general slow death of journalism, but also for something that’s otherwise positive: the barrier of entry has been lowered.  Anyone can publish a book, and that’s wonderful.  But on the other hand, anyone can publish a book, and that’s terrible. This isn’t as clear cut as the invention of the printing press (it stunted the growth of language, but the benefits far outweigh that downside) because despite my love of freedom, I still want expertly crafted stories.  I suppose I’ll accept the new paradigm, because it brings with it an army of online reviewers which will allow me to filter out the lesser works.

That said, I’d read a Residents novel regardless of, or perhaps in spite of, the reviews.  I like their content, if not always their form (there’s concept vs execution again).  This definitely fares better than a bad Stephen King book – the man excels at short stories and epically long novels, but can fail at works that fall in between.

But it’s that indomitable will that I find so endearing.  Part of the genesis of this project was probably the idea that music groups simply do not write novels.  “No better reason to try,” I can hear Randy say, before setting out to do it.

Maybe it’s a one-off not meant to be repeated, but just in case I hope editors come back in style.