The latest Residents release is only available as a cassette tape, which can mean one of two things. First, it can mean that Ralph Records is embracing this as the new standard, and will from now on release music exclusively in this format. It’s a bold move for any company to make, but this would be the one to do it. Far more likely, though, there’s a money issue and they can’t justify the expense of a proper record.
That’s also evident in the content. While the songs and performances are very good, they are in fact older songs (so it was not expensive to generate the material) and the recordings were not engineered to standard quality. The vocals suffer the most, sometimes being inaudible against the music. These are rehearsal tapes, hastily compiled and put to market, probably to fulfill a contractual obligation. The Residents would probably prefer this album not be available at all.
But they did make these recordings available; therefore on some level they want them to be heard. And what do we hear? We hear a band meeting another challenge. The challenge this time is “how do you perform a Residents song live?” With the myriad of effects and studio trickery they routinely employ, it would seem impossible. But they found a way to do it – by tackling the problem from another angle.
The assumption with the challenge as stated is that a “normal” band has to figure out how to recreate Residents music. For most that means throwing out the traditional instruments and focusing on electronics, and probably cheating a bit with some pre-recorded tapes. But The Residents, being on the inside of this problem, see it from the opposite point of view: “how do we perform like a normal band?” From that standpoint the solution is clear: embrace traditional instruments.
Though guitars have always been present, The Residents have never been considered a guitar-oriented band. Assorted Secrets, however, relies heavily on the twin leaders of rock music: guitar and bass. And they’ve probably cheated a little with a pre-recorded tape or two. And while these versions are significantly different from their originals, they succeed in sounding like The Residents, as opposed to sounding like another band attempting to sound like The Residents.
And more than a document of test performances, what this really represents is a band that is becoming more confident and is ready to put itself out in front of more people. For over a decade The Residents have existed in self-imposed obscurity, and not just in terms of their personal identities. Everything they’ve done has had a sense of holding back, of remaining safe within the sanctuary of their studio. The kind of music they create forces listeners to wonder just what kind of people the musicians are, and make personal judgments. So to combat that one naturally hides. When The Beatles made their greatest artistic leap, they framed it as coming from the Sgt Pepper band. Framing devices are very powerful, and subtle. We all knew Sgt Pepper’s was really The Beatles, but we all looked at it differently from the previous Beatles records. The frame forced us to look at the album as a distinct project, not simply the latest collection of songs from a popular band.
And “The Residents” is a project. And that project began entering into a new phase in 1981, according to the dates on these recordings. The change started with reimagining the songs they felt might be most successful in a concert context, then later turning to their most recent work and recreating that as a live performance. The Mark Of The Mole recording is much stronger than the “classics” test, and it’s understandable why it is presented first in this collection, but it doesn’t differ much from the original, and there’s also a home video release of the performance I’m going to watch soon, so my interest now lies with Side B and the live show that never was.