We Found the Beauty of Darkness (Shadowland)

Everything works if you let it.Shadowland purports to be the third part of a trilogy, based on the theme of life in reverse.  The evidence presented is the subject matter of the song and story selections.  Well… that works for some of the content, but certainly not all.  The concept seems to have been brought into play late in the game, but that’s nothing new for The Residents (and I have great respect those who can successfully alter continuity in a retroactive fashion). But there is another way in which the shows can be perceived as running backwards, and that’s to look at the protagonist, Randy.

In Talking Light, Randy is replaced by a mirror person, and we don’t see him come back.    Naturally one would think we’ve had mirror Randy ever since, but that doesn’t jibe well with the Randy we see in Wonder of Weird or the ongoing RandyLand series. Mirror Randy is cool and confident while the Randy we see afterwards is the same as before: excitable, distracted, and potentially dangerous.  If we reverse the performance order, then in Shadowland Randy hardly talks at all (which aligns with the classic persona of aloof Resident), then in Wonder of Weird he must speak out of necessity in order to share the history of the group and is interrupted by a personal crisis, then by the time of Talking Light he has fallen into full blown paranoia that ends in either a vindication or a psychotic break.  Thanks to the reverse concept, we can explain what is otherwise a discrepancy as a future event we’ve backed away from.  Whether that event is inevitable or has been avoided is a discussion for science fiction fans; I’m just happy there’s a way to find coherence in it.

This also means the group has not been pushing us away (from the living room to the front lawn to the shadows), but in fact inviting us in.  This is consistent with their growing social media presence, though that remains separate from the show narrative (otherwise Randy would not discuss the trilogy concept in his videos).  Still, it’s very tidy for those who want the group’s story to make sense.

In the background to these proceedings, Charles Bobuck has announced his intention to leave the touring group and take on a kind of Brian Wilson role in the studio.  Indeed I am writing this on the day of his final performance.  As someone not interested in attending live shows, this doesn’t upset me much at all.  I’ve read several online comments from people bemoaning the end of The Residents.  I can only assume they are so young as to only know them as a touring group, unaware that the first quarter of their career  was spent exclusively in the studio.  There used to be a very vocal segment of the fan base who were adamant that the first ten years were the best, sometimes going so far as to refuse to listen to anything past 1982.  I’m always fascinated by such shifts in popular opinion.  At a macro level, it looks like the fans have changed their minds, but we know people are too stubborn with their beliefs.  The truth is that the old fans are gone, replaced by a new crop with new opinions.  It’s how paradigm shifts happen everywhere; you don’t change a person’s mind, you outvote him with others like yourself.  The Residents, not being individuals but a collective concept, are able to mirror these kinds of changes – always moving on, sometimes forward, sometimes backward, but even a misstep is a step, and they are more excited about the journey than the destination.

So I expect them next to emerge from the shadows with a new perspective to share.  With Bobuck’s return to the studio and a dedicated touring group,  I think we’ll see a renaissance of high concept albums with their accompanying staggering live presentations in the near future, perhaps with a greater drive, determination, and focus than we’ve ever seen before.

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.