Yearly Archives: 1997

Somebody’s Pain-Inflicted Past (Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses)

I'm starting a band called Suicidal Skeletons.Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses is closer to a traditional retrospective than one expects from The Residents.  It provides an overview of their entire career, using the actual recordings, even if in “concentrate” form.  But the concentrates indicate much effort went into this package, more than with most compilations; somebody loved this project, fed and nurtured it.

Interestingly, the first two discs (Album History) are presented in reverse chronological order.  There are several reasons they may have chosen to do this.  The simplest is just to be different; most compilations either flow chronologically or create a new sequence for the selections.  Another reason might be that they are most proud of their recent work and wish to showcase it.  But I think somebody’s read Kierkegaard, in particular his comment about life being understood only in reverse.  But he also believed that life cannot be understood at any given moment, thanks to time’s stubborn insistence to continue on.  “Twenty-five years of still being there,” reads one of the disc cases, hinting at some degree of weariness.  “An overly long era of pestilence and plague,” confirms another.

Some albums are not represented by a concentrate, however, but by the typical selection of songs.  For Our Finest Flowers it makes practical sense – a concentrate would be overkill, amusing though it may be.  For The Commercial Album the concept would be lost in the editing room, unless the concentrate were limited to one minute, which just wouldn’t work.  But I can’t explain Duck Stab in this way.  Maybe the concentrates are only for albums that tell a story, but then I wonder what the story is for Meet The Residents or Fingerprince.  The real reason is likely uninteresting, like whoever was curating this collection ran out of time.  Still, even though I know better, I sometimes try to find meaning behind this group’s doings.  It’s part of the fun.

The third disc is Singles History, mostly cover versions of course.  There are two oddities, though, in the form of unreleased songs the liner notes describe as bonus tracks.  And that’s a nice treat, though I don’t understand the inclusion of “The Gingerbread Man” when it seems like a concentrate of the concentrate from the first disc.

That brings me to the fourth disc, History Mystery, undoubtedly the crown jewel of the set, with its bounty of unreleased pieces.  Here is where the liner notes become most interesting, hinting at small scale projects and even abandoned ideas.  From them we learn that The Residents often have more ideas than time, and do look upon their work as a series of bricks with which they can build larger structures.  At any time a motif or even a complete song on an album may have originally been intended for an entirely unrelated project.

And so it brings me a bit of sadness to read about my favorite part of this collection, which is the tracks from The Teds, a performance/film project that is not going to see the light of day, nor is it going to be restructured into something new.  The existing tracks have been released, and that pathway has been closed off.  A real shame, too, because these songs grab me in the same way God In Three Persons and Not Available grab me, which is no surprise given the similarity I feel in them yet am unable to define in words.  But I’m also given hope that there are other great ideas in various states of progress just waiting to be completed.

The climax of the set, “Hallowed By Thy Ween,” comes from one of their demos.  Upon hearing it, I completely understand why it didn’t win them a contract.  It lacks unity, even when compared to their earliest releases.  It holds a certain historical value and belongs in this set, but I can’t see myself listening to it very often.  And that’s okay; I don’t need to like everything this group does.  Surely, that way lies madness.

They Thought That We Were Put Together Randomly (Pollex Christi)

He's a star?  Looks to be on the plain side.Pollex Christi is a curious affair, even by the standards of The Residents.  It is a boutique release, the first from their resurrected Ralph Records label, now named Ralph America.  It’s a limited edition probably for two reasons: first, it’s an experiment in merchandising (Ralph America is not an actual record label, but a specialized mail order outfit), and secondly the content itself is not the (un)usual Residents fare.  Here they have taken to reinterpreting pieces of classical music, giving them a Residential slant.

But they have explored this area before, most explicitly with their version of Fur Elise, but really every time they have appropriated and recontextualized any work.  Their Beatles edit, their Dick Clark medley, their finest flowers – all were instances in which existing music was repurposed to create something new.  The message implicit in this action does contain an element of “destroy your idols” but that’s not nearly as fun as “art is alive and survives by feeding upon itself.”  I think that early on the balance was more on the destructive side, but the mature, constructive side of The Residents was always present and has only grown stronger through the years.  The difference is most apparent when compared to one of their earliest efforts, The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll.  The musicianship there was sloppy and often jarring, and here it has a cold precision (though that exactitude renders it far more jarring when something unexpected happens).  The former featured Dick Clark wearing an SS uniform, and this features the music of Carl Orff, often suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer, but fails to make any mention of it.  From drawing swastikas where they didn’t belong to not even considering that kind of bold exploitation is a stark contrast in how The Residents operate.

But even this new interpretation is not a Residents composition.  It is the work of N. Senada, a collaborator from their earliest days.  It is described as a house built of bricks, the bricks being existing music with which builders realize the architect’s vision.  The more I think about it, Pollex Christi really does seem to be a sequel to The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll: the same idea but with twenty years of growth and maturity added to the mix.  Perhaps this is The Residents’ way of saying “we misunderstood what he meant when we started out, and this is what that album really should have been.”  It’s just as simultaneously strange and familiar, but has none of the “stoned kids goofing off” feel.  This is a work of art without an image of the artist intruding upon it, and that seems more in line with what this group has been trying to express.

Now about N. Senada.  As a supporter of what The Residents are doing, I must fully believe in his story.  To do otherwise would mean undermining their concept altogether, and at that point they may as well step into the spotlight, say their names, and write a tell-all book.  And while I admit that part of me is still curious about what kind of people they are, I recognize that the concept of The Residents – an entity that exists only in the art world with no ties to the day-to-day – is strange and beautiful and something we would be worse off for not having.

That said, I believe N. Senada is a fictional construct of The Residents, an amalgam of their influences.  I see shades of Harry Partch, John Cage, Frank Zappa, and others all rolled up into this ideal musical mentor.  And if N. Senada is really everyone who has been an inspiration, then it stands to reason that The Residents are really everyone who has ever been inspired, making every one of us a potential part of this great art collective.  We’ve all received their mail, haven’t we?  What further proof of global community could we possibly need?  A hippie message brought on by musical anarchists playing classical music?  That is pure Residents.