Yearly Archives: 1992

Oh, We Have To Buy A Tulip (Our Finest Flowers)

Shades of night are creeping, willow trees are weeping.An anniversary album should be a celebration of what a band does best.  But instead most anniversary albums are what a record label does best: re-release available material to generate new sales.  What The Residents do best is present our culture back to us, filtered through their skewed – but not completely inaccurate – perspective.  In the case of Our Finest Flowers, they have presented exactly what we expect in a twentieth anniversary release (a collection of old songs), but done in Residents style (reinterpreted into something entirely new).  They’ve done this by cherry picking parts from different songs and writing new ones from the pieces.  It is brilliant in its simplicity of concept, as well as in its complexity of execution.

This album maintains cohesion not just by being recorded with the same instrumentation, but also by crafting many of the selections to flow into one another.  Take for example the melody line that appears at the end of “I’m Dreaming of a White Sailor” and lasts all throughout “Or Maybe a Marine.”  Or the rhythm of “Six Things To A Cycle” that permeates “The Sour Song” and is made explicit in “Six Amber Things.”  The official story is that the idea for this project spawned from a joke, but it’s obvious that careful consideration went into the production of this album.  There are so many moments culled from other songs that I’ll probably continue identifying them for years to come.

It’s no coincidence the liner notes describe the entire Residents career as “regurgitation.”  The backstory is partially written for shock value, but at the core is the truth: The Residents take things in, digest them, and return them mixed with their own juices.  They have traditionally positioned themselves as outsiders, as observers and reporters of our culture.  With this album they are making two new statements.  First, they are not immune to their own medicine, and can target themselves just as well as they can target others.  And secondly, by repositioning themselves as subjects worthy of the treatment, they now see themselves as part of the cultural landscape they’ve been observing all these years.

Arguably we’ve seen them do this before.  “Santa Dog” has had several interpretations, though they never seemed to say more than “this is what we sound like now.”  We could also say that mixing songs is not new, citing their pairing of “Kaw-Liga” and “Billie Jean.”  But that seems more like the hot topic of the past few years, sampling.  Our Finest Flowers is a cousin to that, but seems to be something new.  Will it catch on?  Maybe, but it could only be done by the few artists who own their back catalogue or at least remain with the same publishing company.  John Fogerty would not be able to attempt it without trouble, as was proven recently.

And how is the result?  Not at all gimmicky as one might imagine.  Each song has had new life breathed into it.  These may not all be the best versions, but they are certainly acceptable alternates.  This album could also act very well as an introduction to the group.  Greatest hits compilations come with a sales risk – if the buyer enjoys it and wants more, there is a tendency to avoid picking up other albums that include several songs from the compilation.  Here, that is not a problem.  If someone likes this album, there is no reason not to buy another Residents album, apart from the knowledge that very few Residents albums sound similar to one another.

What The Residents have created is an anniversary release that will not become obsolete.  Any compilation created by a still-active band will necessarily be superseded by a future compilation, and likely disappear from a fan’s music shelf, leaving a gap in what should have been a landmark year.  But in another twenty years Our Finest Flowers will still be relevant, and that will allow fans – as well as The Residents – to look back on it with pride.

Boxes That Depicted A Sad Reality (Freak Show comic / Blowoff)

Ooh, sick Burns!“Blowoff” is a sideshow term that refers to an additional attraction, one not suitable for the general public – such as a deformed fetus kept in a jar – that is only made available to the brave souls who buy an additional ticket.  With The Residents, it’s a 15-minute suite of themes related to Freak Show.  Is it brand new music made just for this release?  Is it material cut from the album?  Or is it the original demo/experiment that birthed the entire project?  I’m going to side with it being the demo, with perhaps a bit of touch up done here and there.  That would keep it likened to a pickled fetus – something young, with the promise of life, but ultimately not fully formed.  The Residents have long exuded a sense of restlessness, of wanting to move on to their next project, so returning to make more Freak Show music doesn’t seem very likely.  In fact I’m somewhat surprised they’ve returned to this project at all, but not surprised in the manner in which they have.  They have not churned out another album of sideshow ditties; they have employed the help of several artists to bring Freak Show into a new medium: the comic book (or graphic novel as some would have it).

With this book, The Residents have opened themselves to greater collaboration than ever before.  It is a true anthology, not simply “The Residents with special guests.”  In the end this is precisely what the idea of The Residents is all about.  Their very name indicates that anyone can take part; there is nothing set in stone, nothing that excludes.  Anyone in the vicinity can bring in their own ideas.  That said, some of the artists chose not to stray far outside the lines of what The Residents had sketched out.  The “Wanda The Worm Woman” section, for example, has no text that does not come from the original song.  Perhaps the artist felt he could do no better; perhaps he felt that any change would undermine the work The Residents had already done.  Perhaps a little of both, perhaps neither.  As for the artists who expanded upon or created their own stories, the opposite may be true: perhaps they felt they could tell a better tale than The Residents, or perhaps they felt they shouldn’t repeat what was laid before them.

There are multiple sides to either decision, and without interviewing each artist it is impossible to tell which is true.  It’s safest to assume that all choices were made for the best and most positive of reasons: an altered story was due to a desire to create something new; an unaltered story was due to a desire to bring a visual interpretation to an existing aural stimulus.  Both strategies are perfectly reasonable, and all of these entries are interesting, or visually stunning, or both.

I confess I am not a regular reader of comic books.  I want my word-to-image ratio to be very high, and I find the comic book format generally lacks the ability to fully explore the themes and emotions it depicts.  But I also acknowledge that many people are better stimulated visually, and merely need just the right pen stroke for a character to express a full range of emotion that would otherwise take a full page of text.  It’s just not how my mind likes to take in a story.  That said, I do enjoy the Freak Show comic, mostly because it alludes to further stories or adds details to the existing ones from the album.  And while “Wanda The Worm Woman” adds nothing story-wise, the artwork is the best in the collection as far as I’m concerned.  So for my tastes, the collaborations fit together the best way imaginable: each brings something new to the material, and that’s why someone would take the time to revisit the past.  Yes, even a group as restless as The Residents, for whom personal nostalgia seems to be the antithesis of being.