Grandpa Gio and The Residents Tue, 04 Jul 2017 11:01:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Everyone Always Knew It’d End Up This Way (Grandpa Gio and The Residents) Sun, 25 Dec 2016 16:08:01 +0000 Not a Resident (really).And so it’s come to this.

Three years ago my granddaughter had the idea to take selections from my music diary and put them on the Internet.  She was only interested in the entries about The Residents, and that’s understandable because theirs is one of the more interesting stories – or lack of stories – in the music and art world.  She set the clock at an accelerated pace, and the end was always going to be today, December 25, 2016.  There isn’t a new “Santa Dog” to bark about, but I feel something has to post today, so I’ve decided to write about my relationship with The Residents.

A year into her project, Jennifer received an email from Charles Bobuck.  I told her he didn’t exist.  She took that to mean that I thought the email was a prank.  On the contrary, I knew it was genuine, but I also knew that Charles was a fictional construct.  A contraption, if you will.  But whether a person or a character, he said he enjoyed reading my pieces, even if he didn’t agree with them (a side effect of me having to guess at the truth while he lived it).  I only write my music diary for myself, never intending for anyone to read it, let alone the subjects of my entries.  Obviously I let go of what I suppose could be considered my implementation of the Theory of Obscurity, and Mr. Bobuck rewarded me by letting go of his.  Just a little.  Enough to make human contact, that which is so needed but so often overlooked.

Jennifer also shared comments from fans.  Most were positive, a few were negative.  The most interesting ones were based on the assumption that I myself am a member of The Residents.  As far as I can tell, it wasn’t even debated in the fan forums, only accepted as unspoken fact.  I know that to be completely false, but to try to deny it would be futile.  The legend of The Residents has grown beyond the originators, and will swallow up anyone who gets too close, even if it is just an old man muttering about what he thinks the latest album is trying to convey.

I have, quite by accident, become an authority on the history of this group.  This is unfortunate due to my having no confirmation for most of my conclusions.  Sometimes I’d make a mistake and the fans would run with it, believing I was revealing new insider knowledge, and refused the much more likely possibility that I was just wrong.  But that is also perfectly acceptable if we believe that art does not live in the artist, but within the mind of the audience (even, and perhaps especially when, that audience is not a consideration when making said art).  The Residents are what we make of them, and they probably mean something different to each person who has found them.

And so I will leave you with this, my most recent realization about The Residents: they are completely normal.  I don’t mean the people ultimately responsible for the art; of course they are normal (otherwise they wouldn’t have made it past the first few years).  I mean The Residents as an artistic entity.  Look at mainstream music.  Really look at it.  Doesn’t it strike you as strange that so much of it sounds similar?  Art is about individual expression, about showing the world who you are.  The Residents are one of the very few doing just that.  The others are following a formula, and only veering off in pre-approved ways, just enough to brand themselves in the marketplace.

Everybody has art within them.  Everybody has a song.  But most of us don’t share our personal song because it doesn’t fit with what we’re told personal songs are supposed to sound like.  More people should contribute their own views to the world.  We should all step up and declare ourselves art world citizens.  We should all become Residents.

Merry Christmas.  Arf.

Melting Tin Upon the Tracks (Rushing Like a Banshee) Thu, 10 Nov 2016 13:52:38 +0000 I walk a big dog.The new single from The Residents gives us a small glimpse into what a post-Bobuck world for them might be like (though it’s unclear at this time if some of his work from early in the project survives in this recording).

And… it does feel strange to talk about members of this group as one would any other band.  Until Mr. Bobuck retired, it seemed just another facet of the games they play – a way to bend the concept of identity and question reality.  There has long been speculation that the group’s membership is fluid (actually, more than speculation I think that is core to the concept), but it’s never been so explicit before.

So now a realization hits: Residents with identities are Residents who can leave.  And this was explicitly stated at the beginning.  As soon as we were introduced to the trio, we were told the fourth member, Carlos, had left.  It seemed like a joke at the time – and maybe it was – but in retrospect it’s become much more.

They are definitely at uncertain crossroads (as depicted in the artwork), with potential failure ahead of them, but definite failure if they refuse to move forward.  In the interest of self-preservation the chance must be taken, despite any unintended consequences.

So the group remains fluid, with Rico stepping in to fill vacant shoes or, more likely, to show off an entirely new pair.  If he’s supposed to be an invisible replacement then he’d be named Charles Bobuck.  He’s not, so I expect nothing more from him than something completely new.

And this song does push into new, or at least minimally chartered, areas for The Residents.  It has a ferocity I don’t think I’ve heard from them before.  Even their rendition of “Satisfaction” with its unhinged guitar still has a slower tempo and feels more laid back than this.  This has a fury and rage driving it, like some industrial-fused punk band.

But it can’t be representative of the album (for what single ever is?) so I won’t make any assumptions based upon it (and if anything the new direction is temporary, with the b-side being so different, and also why would they suddenly settle into a pattern after all this time?).  But production-wise one difference I hear is how the vocals are mixed;  I’m used to Residents vocals kind of lying on top of, or existing somewhat separate from the music, and this has them right there in the trenches, as it were.  Should I expect to hear that going forward, or does it just work with this one track?  We shall see.

The single is accompanied by a music video, their first standalone video since, I believe, “Harry The Head” from Freak Show.  There have been other new videos (most recently with Icky Flix and The Commercial Album DVD), but those were for video projects in and of themselves, and not separate promotional tools.  This could indicate a renewed interest in marketing, but more likely it has grown out of more video work coming from The Residents in the past few years.  Of course it doesn’t hurt that there just so happens to be a new studio album on the way.

There’s so much going on in the video that I don’t know where to begin, or if I should begin at all.  We’re inundated with images, all screaming for our attention.  It’s madness and hysteria, but at the same time it’s all contained within little boxes.  The entire video itself is enclosed in a box – the computer screen and even the YouTube window within that – so any comment it makes about the clips it also makes about itself.

All in all it is organized chaos – a perfect description of The Residents themselves.  Other performers attempt to duplicate The Residents but few succeed.  I think some see only the chaos and miss the organization.  Not only is there a method to the madness, the method comes first, which effectively nullifies the madness.

Heroes Always Speak the Truth and Heroes Never Explain (Theory of Obscurity) Wed, 04 May 2016 15:33:02 +0000 Where there are mountains, there are always clouds.The pattern of late has been that by the time I get a chance to experience their latest project, The Residents have already moved to their next.  The Wonder of Weird CD was released while Shadowland was happening, the Shadowland CD came out as Theory of Obscurity premiered, and now that I am able to see the film, a modified Shadowland is in full swing.  I’m certain they’d be releasing Train Wracked By God if the touring group hadn’t had to reform in the wake of Charles Bobuck’s departure.  I suspect the extra time he’s spending in the studio will result in something quite different.

This documentary has a difficult balance to achieve.  First and foremost it needs to be a beginner’s guide to The Residents.  That in itself is not an easy feat – how does one distill four decades of varying work into ninety minutes of sound bites?  Without a narrative from the band itself, you are left with the unenviable task of working backwards from finished product to hypothesizing the intentions.  If the filmmakers opted to have a narrator throughout the film it would only be the wild theories of a single person, and cease to be representative.  The model they settled upon – a broad overview just lightly dipping its foot into selected highlights – is probably the best given the restrictions, though still problematic.  Let’s be frank for a moment: The Residents are not a popular group, and never will be.  Only a small minority of people will ever be interested, and they are more often than not keen to explore and don’t wish to be spoonfed information.  As for the majority of the film’s audience – those who will never investigate further – there’s no point in delving into minute details of something they simply won’t care about.  So that’s how to handle mainstream audiences.

The other demographic to consider is the existing fanbase.  Of course they’ll see this film, even though it’s targeted to newcomers.  But will they accept such a shallow overview?  Of course not.  They expect a movie that reveals new insights, as impossible as that must be for the dedicated fan.  And the film caters to that mentality – while still being accessible to the public – in two ways.

First is the brilliant use of alternative footage for music videos.  A newcomer need only see some of the stills from the “Hello Skinny” video to get the idea of the visuals, but the longtime fan recognizes the heretofore unused shots, and squeals with glee.  Secondly, a handful of never before (or rarely before) revealed stories from behind the scenes.  Are the construction details of the original eyeball necessary to the story?  No, but it is interesting, and happens to tie into the main thesis of the documentary.

And that is the do it yourself attitude that pervades everything The Residents touch.  Even when enlisting outside help, it seems those collaborators are given a challenge, taken out of their comfort zone, and must invent new methods to meet the goal.  This is partially a movie that celebrates self reliance.  It is also a movie about discovery because, as I understand it, the director had never heard of The Residents before he started this project.

How did he do?  I think quite well.  There are too many pseudo-insider perspectives when it comes to this group.  With many fanbases one’s loyalty level is measured by amount of collected arcane knowledge, and with The Residents that goes into overdrive.  Unable to verify even the most basic facts, they almost become a conspiracy theorist’s wonderland.  To have a true outsider come in is gloriously refreshing.  It’s not the film I would have made – and that’s certainly true for many others – but on the other hand, wouldn’t we rather have something that is different?  Art – as well as Life – flourishes on the constant struggle between comfort and discovery.  And after four decades, it’s nice to be able to watch it all again through the eyes of someone new.

We Found the Beauty of Darkness (Shadowland) Fri, 20 Mar 2015 23:16:26 +0000 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) Wed, 09 Jul 2014 15:24:48 +0000 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) Mon, 01 Apr 2013 04:40:51 +0000 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) Mon, 19 Nov 2012 00:58:01 +0000 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.

Everyone Is Crazy in a One Man Show (Codgers on the Moon) Sat, 26 May 2012 12:47:22 +0000 We know Major Tom's a Barcalounger.Codgers on the Moon is the first solo album from Charles Bobuck, recently outed member of The Residents.  Randy has already developed a one man show, but it has only seen workshop performances at this time, allowing one to keep believing  the separate personalities is just a one-off conceptual idea.  Codgers, with its broad availability, really drives home the idea that this is really happening.

The album is described as being unexpected – Mr. Bobuck did not expect to have a life outside of The Residents, but one has been thrust upon him.  He thinks a solo album is logically expected of him, so he put one together.  I think that it will be interesting to compare it to a typical Residents release, so that we may attempt to learn what Mr. Bobuck thinks is and is not considered Residents.

Unfortunately that is easier said than done.  Codgers sounds like a likely progression from recent Residents projects, in particular (obviously) the instrumental ones.  I think all we can really gather from this is that Mr. Bobuck had been the one interested in creating film scores.

The album has a companion website, which finds me fascinated and uncomfortable in equal measure.  Fascinated because we are getting a behind the scenes look, and uncomfortable for the same reason.  Having an identity, a personality, an established set of values… it just doesn’t seem right to me.  I know this is part of a larger concept of what a “band” means in our culture, but it still makes me uneasy.

Randy is doing this too, to an extent.  He has started his own website which began as a series of ghost stories (a continuation of the Talking Light project) and more recently has branched out into a collection of wildly varying posts.  It seems as though he’s found an outlet for ideas outside of the Residents inner sanctum.  I think the intent is to create a space where he can test out new ideas and gauge reactions from the public – a way to measure interest before dedicating months of work to it.  Whatever receives the most likes will inform the next project.

Though, actually, I don’t entirely believe that.  While The Residents are certainly interested in the collaborative opportunities afforded by the internet, there’s very little in the way of them making use of it.  They put out an open call for artists to create videos for their Commercial Album – and certainly delivered on the proposal – nothing else really feels as interactive as one might have hoped.  The Bunny Boy story ultimately did not seem to be guided by fans; Randy’s Tumblr appears to be a one-way conversation; Bobuck’s Twitter account so far only advertises his new album.

And perhaps that’s entirely intentional.  If Randy Chuck and Bob, as a concept, is a statement on the nature of celebrity, then perhaps it is fitting that, despite having made themselves known to the world, they remain just as inaccessible as ever.  Celebrity personalities are not real – they are stage personae that live in our world.  It’s easy to forget the people on our TVs are imaginary.  It’s been noted many times that television stars are treated more casually than film stars, and it’s supposedly due to the familiarity – these people come into our homes every week, whereas we have to make a special trip to see a movie star.  The Talking Light used this in a skewed sense by setting up a living room on stage.  The audience would have gone out for a special event, but then was invited into a home to watch television.  The lines are blurred and ultimately we find ourselves no closer to the truth.

Except of course for the fact that the truth is precisely as laid out for us.  There is no secret underlying layer of any importance.  But where’s the fun in that?  The Residents faked the Moon landing.  It’s so obvious – those big round astronaut helmets were clearly precursors to the eyeball heads.

Before the Eve of Everlasting Grey (ERA B4-74) Sat, 07 Jan 2012 17:26:10 +0000 This is not how you get washboard abs.The Residents have launched a new project called ERA, in which they revisit and annotate past periods of their career.  It is not unlike a museum exhibition, complete with exclusive t-shirts available in the gift shop.  The first installment is suitably concerned with the time before they became known as The Residents, here named Pre-sidents to avoid confusion with their post-1974 incarnation.

This particular era holds a place of wonder for fans, because it is at the heart of the mystery that surrounds the group.  Even when you accept that there are no individuals involved in the concept, there’s still a part that wonders “yes, but what about before the concept was formed?  Who was there before it all started?”

That kind of thinking is flawed, of course.  There is no beginning before the beginning.  The Residents as an idea is constantly changing, yes, but The Residents as group of individuals emerged fully formed – that form being void or nothingness.  Of course, the recent Talking Light show directly contradicts this notion.  Now suddenly there is a sense of individual membership, and that is perhaps why they’ve begun this large retrospective project.

The first ERA celebrates a time before the Residents concept took hold.  A more innocent time, perhaps, but definitely more naive.  Who were these people who thought it would be a good idea to hide behind a collective mask? What’s the motive?  To listen to these early recordings, one might think it’s a defense against negative feedback – the number one killer of creativity.  These early songs are not good, and no sane person would fault them for wanting to keep the tracks unreleased.  The ERA website says “Projects from pre-1974 are sketchy and largely personal. The Residents do not generally encourage the inspection of that time.”

But now they’ve been released and laid bare for inspection, so the story must have changed in some way.  It can’t simply be they’ve listened again and thought “hey, this is pretty good after all.”  That certainly happens to many artists, but I don’t think that is the case this time.  First of all, they probably would have released them during the 25th anniversary celebration when they reviewed these recordings looking for suitable material.  Secondly, and most importantly: ugh.  They sound awful.  If anything good was seen in these songs, they’d have been re-recorded and released as new.

No, I think the revelation of identities has unearthed hitherto unseen ego.  Now that there’s a name behind the music, that name wants to show improvement.  “Look how much better I am now,” they seem to say.  This wasn’t possible without identities; any drastically different sound would be attributed to the fluid nature of membership.  “That sounds bad?  Must have been someone else who made it.”  But now the narrative says it’s always been the same people involved, so a new critical lens must be applied.

And the lens starts at the new beginning.  Think of it as a prequel, where we learn what motivated our favorite character to become the hero we love.  Of course, as with all prequels, the inherent problem is that the story doesn’t get interesting until later.  It functions best as historical footnote.

I suppose it’s really a reboot.  Start over, and repaint the canvases in a slightly different way, this time with the foreknowledge of what is to come.  It will allow them to smooth over bumps by making them expected turns.  So while I’m not especially thrilled with this first installment, I am eagerly awaiting future ERA exhibitions.  I don’t think it will necessarily mean loads of unreleased demos from their entire career – most likely the ERA concept is just a compilation with an accompanying narrative; it just so happens that the first era mostly consists of unreleased material.  But there’s plenty of behind the scenes information – historical or newly envisioned – that we’ve yet to see.  The Residents have always been great storytellers, and now they are turning that talent towards their own tale.

A Magic Hide-A-Bed (Coochie Brake) Tue, 25 Oct 2011 12:18:44 +0000 And so it is written in the book of Bobuck. Aw, man.Coochie Brake, the latest release from The Residents, elicits a murky dread that fits perfectly with its namesake.  The production feels less like a selection of instruments recorded and placed together and more like a musical soup.  Every now and then a particular flavor rises to the surface, but for the most part it sounds like a homogeneous mixture.  That’s not to say the sound is indistinct; rather the timbre of each instrument complements the whole.  I don’t think they’ve achieved such a perfect matching of content and form since Mark of the Mole.

This is particularly evident with the vocals, most of which are in Spanish, which I am no good at decoding when heard (if written I have a better chance, and of course I could also use a dictionary).  This puts me in the position of being unable to critique the lyrics.  It gives me the opportunity, however, to experience this album as non-English speakers might experience their other albums.  But I could get that kind of feeling by listening to any album recorded in a foreign language, so that can’t be their main goal.  I think the stronger intent here is to cast the voice as an instrument rather than a delivery mechanism for words.  We’ve seen them do this in the past, most notably with Eskimo and The Big Bubble, the difference here being that we could gather meaning if we put some effort into it.  So I played the first track for a Spanish-speaking friend to get her insights.

Her first observation, unsurprisingly, was that the vocals were buried and difficult to hear.  She persevered, though, and was able to make out some talk of mirrors and the face we show versus the face we keep inside; how life is precious and all that matters is how we conduct ourselves in the time between birth and death.

The mirror aspect grabs my attention, being as it is a continuation (or as least, dare I say it, a reflection) of the Mirror People segments of the Talking Light show.  Mirrors carry with them a long history of symbolic meaning, one of the most popular stories being that of Narcissus.  I wonder if that association is deliberate?

A few other things are going on here that are worth noting.  First, we are dealing with a trio of Residents instead of the standardized four.  This time, however, Randy is out and Carlos is in, despite Carlos having seemingly retired last year.  Within the narrative of The Residents, is he back or is he just doing a one-off?  Why is Randy not participating in this reunion?  Is there bad blood between the two?

Next, the album is released under the moniker of Sonidos de la Noche, which calls to mind the Combo de Mechanico from High Horses.  I don’t know if there’s anything worth uncovering there; it’s just an observation.  It may just be that Carlos names the side projects.

We are also getting a history lesson with this album.  The Coochie Brake legends are true (meaning the legends exist outside of The Residents; I cannot speak for the truth of the legends themselves).  I’m coming to realize that there’s a lot more truth than fiction in the world of The Residents, especially in the past decade.  It seems that stories and liner notes, starting with Demons Dance Alone, have had a more personal, honest air about them.  Long gone are the fantastical, almost cartoonish stories about the group (the last I can think of right now is from a CD-ROM that described their notes coming in scribbled crayon).  These days the group is being straight with us, or at least no longer running everything through a myth filter.  It could be they decided the old way was immature, or it could be they respect us more, accept us, and no longer need to keep a distance.  Probably a little of both.  At some point we all accept who looks back from the mirror.

Now Who Is Gone And Who Is Right? (Talking Light) Mon, 03 May 2010 22:10:09 +0000 Seeing a murder on television... can help work off one's antagonisms. And if you haven't any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some.Talking Light is the bringing together of what has become two separate threads of the Residents continuum.  On the one side we had the storyteller and on the other we had remix as composition.  For the past several years, they have alternated which is at the forefront and which stands aside, so much so that I began to suspect there were multiple groups of Residents in play.

As it turns out, that was not the case (or maybe it was, but we must always read each new development as if it were intended).  The current show presents a new face for the band.  As with The Bunny Boy, the lead singer has taken an identity (in this case, Randy), but he has also identified the other group members: Chuck, Bob, and Carlos.  Now, I don’t for a moment believe these are their actual names, but that’s not the game we play with The Residents.  As a participant in their larger social contract, I accept the details presented to me and try to fit them into what has come before.

So we know that there are now three Residents where previously there were four (despite the number on stage most often being six; again, we go with the official traditional four-piece).  The closest they’ve had to individual identities before was referring to them by mask (such as Mr. Blue or Mr. Skull).  This is a significant change for the group, and perhaps the hope is that, with names in place, the public will finally leave the identity mystery behind and focus on the music instead.

As mentioned, the concept takes two forms: stories and music interpretation.  Within this tour, they are improvising or randomizing the stories with each performance, which makes the fact they are releasing recordings of each show online a beneficial move.  Nobody need miss anything for the simple reason that they couldn’t attend a concert.  Also, the truly devoted can slavishly compare all of the performances and calculate just how random the improvised portions are.

Which I’ve not done, because that’s a job for the young and foolish (although passionate and sincere).  I’ve downloaded three of the shows, because they are priced at about one-third of what a physical release would be.  But if I make the assumption that each version of a particular story is noticeably different, yet the same, I can draw another conclusion from this show.

The titular Talking Light is television.  This is made clear by the accompanying artwork, and of course the show takes place in a living room.  So perhaps the songs portion is the television show – that which we’ve all gathered into the living room to watch.  That leaves the stories to be the advertising breaks.  Indeed, most incorporate clips from old, familiar commercials.  And what are commercials, artistically speaking, but the same messages repeated with just enough variation to stand out but not enough to become something else?  Each Coca-Cola ad is different, but they all get the same message across.  Herein lies the explanation behind the improvised portions of the show.

I have recordings from two US performances, and one from the in-progress European tour.  And while the execution of the songs does differ somewhat, they feel more like the natural evolution that takes place when material is played repeatedly.  The stories, apart from some pre-recorded dialogue, change in significant ways each night.  The musical beds they are laid upon seem to be variations on a theme, so “Talking Light” remains recognizable and distinct from “Unseen Sister,” but each instance is itself a new song.  It’s like Doc Severinsen and his wacky jackets.  Each was unique, but all were clearly his.

I could spend several pages writing about the Mirror People story within the show.  Mirrors are symbols of introspection and identity, of perception and reality – all in all the cornerstones of The Residents.  But as I near my arbitrarily self-imposed limit, I will just end with this question: who are we really seeing now?

I Never Look Behind Me (Ten Little Piggies) Sat, 14 Nov 2009 14:50:05 +0000 And this little piggy went "weeeee arrrrre the woooooorrrld!"Ten Little Piggies is a unique compilation in that it collects music from projects that have yet to be released.  An easier way to look at it is as a sampler of works in progress.  Even that is impressive, and again confirms my long held belief that The Residents always have several projects in flight at any given moment.  Presumably they could have made such a release at any time.  So why now?

It could simply be a straightforward contractual obligation.  A new label (in this case, MVD) would like a compilation to sell, so one is put together.  But this one has the added selling point of having all new material, which makes it more likely to be purchased by existing fans.  The Residents may well be in a position where existing fans outnumber potential fans, so it makes financial sense to market specifically to them, the birds in the hand.  Or it could be this is the first time they’ve had so many projects nearing completion at once, providing them the rare opportunity to confidently announce them in advance (it is well known they do not like revealing details of a project before it is finalized, due to their propensity towards tinkering and change).

Regardless of the genesis, there is still corporate bureaucracy at play here, with a couple of these future projects having already been released (Hades came out as a digital download last month, and The Ughs coincides with this release).  Obviously Ten Little Piggies was intended to be made available a few months ago, but got caught up in whatever machinations prevent any project from completing on time.

That delay would have to be known to them, so again we ask: what is the benefit of this (mostly) forward-looking compilation?  I think they are rebranding, or at least putting new emphasis on their existing brand.  Though come to think of it, a redoubled effort would be littered with the eyeball head image, so they must be conjuring up something different.  A new attempt to escape the all-being eye.   I’m definitely seeing a desire to do more soundtrack work.  Not only are they releasing commissioned scores, but also instrumental versions of their most recent albums.  They are reminding the entertainment world at large that they are available for such contract work, and this is a new demo reel that better reflects their current state.  “Listen to how much better we are these days,” they are saying.  “We’re not just that weird eyeball band; we can do serious commercial art as well.  You know my name, look up the number.”

Ordinarily a new Residents project causes me to reevaluate what I know about them, recontextualizing their past.  Ten Little Piggies wants me to look into their future, but even now they resist my attempt to do so.  Of the ten projects previewed, eight are of older, unreleased material.  That’s still new as far as the public is concerned, but it leaves us with very little in the way of determining where they are headed.  Duck Stab Re-Imagined is referred to in the past tense, so it’s probably a shelved idea, only included here because something from it will be released (à la I Murdered Mommy), but we’ll never see the originally intended product.

Talking Light is the only project left that can be considered in progress at this time, and it sounds like it has the potential to carry on for a long while.  As described, it is a methodology rather than a narrative concept, so it’s more akin to “use computers for recording” than “write songs about animals.”  A narrative concept will get fed into it, no doubt, but the core methodology will allow them to work more efficiently on that concept as well as others to follow.  Every few years there’s a sort of renaissance within The Residents, and I think we are seeing another one happen right now.  I’m excited to listen to the Light, and see what it says.

Drag The Bunny All Around (The Bunny Boy) Sun, 12 Oct 2008 14:28:58 +0000 I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.With The Bunny Boy, The Residents have returned to their mid-1990s mindset of exploring the interactive capabilities of modern technology.  While River of Crime was presented as a podcast, experiencing it as it happened will be no different than experiencing it in the future.  The Bunny Boy is an event, happening now, and if viewed years later will lose some of its effectiveness.

Part of that is the luxury granted by the nature of events unfolding in real time.  Many of the videos completely fail to move the plot forward; they act only as reminders that the saga continues.  If this were to be presented as a finished project, it would need to be edited down to story beats with a clear narrative.  The attempt here is to replicate reality; finely tuned stories are wonderful (and naturally my preference), but I do recognize that they sacrifice realism for structure.

The lack of structure is such that The Residents themselves do not know where the story is going.  Viewers are invited to interact via email, with the implication that they can influence what happens.  Bunny has already shared some of the messages he’s received, though those were obviously scripted by The Residents.  That could, however, simply be a matter of needing a backlog of content ready before the series ever premiered.  Future episodes will likely have real viewer interaction.

The format of this project is an extreme swing of the pendulum in the world of The Residents.  Overall, they have been presenting an almost schizophrenic image the past few years.  Their releases have been bouncing back and forth between tightly controlled affairs and more open collaborations.  The albums alternate between single voice and full cast.  They even allowed the public to submit their own videos for a recent DVD.  This, along with the latest strategy of inviting fans to shape the project itself almost feels as if they are holding open auditions for future colleagues.

The Residents has always been a philosophy more than a group, but has (probably) always consisted of the same core individuals.  The alternation between core and open collaboration might be a planned transitional period.  From the collaboration side might emerge a new group that also works under the moniker of The Residents, which eventually takes over completely.  That would certainly explain the incredibly varied and prolific output of the past few years.

It’s always tricky to think about replacements in music.  There are plenty of bands who continue to exist with few original members.  But replacements also stamp their own indelible mark on the proceedings.  David Gilmour is not an original member of Pink Floyd but has done so much that he could probably get away with using the name while replacing everyone else.  It’s the proverbial axe that gets a new head and sometime later a new handle.  Is it still the same axe?

The Bunny Boy approaches this question obliquely.  No answer is offered, but the scenario underlies much of what happens.  Though the story is in progress as I write this, it seems clear that Bunny is Harvey, and he’s had a break with reality.  He’s a replacement, though one that mostly fits the description of what originally belongs.

Several songs on the album reflect this as well, having no musical distinction between verse and chorus – the usual ABACAB structure is replaced with an AAAAAA structure.  There’s that word “replace” again, and I do think this is intentional.  As listeners we can identify the verse and chorus sections of a song like “Boxes of Armageddon” thanks to the production and arrangement, but if we pay attention we realize they have the same chords and melody.  This mirrors Bunny/Harvey and the way he has replaced himself.  The first song with a different structure, “I’m Not Crazy,” explicitly talks about a personality change.  This pattern isn’t cleanly followed throughout, but there’s enough to warrant consideration.

So we’re left wondering what happens to The Residents next.  Where does the rabbit hole lead?

I Know I’ll Hear You When It’s Late At Night (The Voice of Midnight) Fri, 07 Dec 2007 06:41:58 +0000 Snap crackle pop! Eyes crispies!I had heard of, but never read, E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Der Sandman,” so the latest Residents album, The Voice of Midnight, provided the perfect opportunity to explore the story.  Usually an adaptation is criticized as being unfaithful to the source material, and the opinions get harsher the more familiar and comfortable the reviewer is with the original.  I consider myself lucky that both are new to me, minimizing my attachment to either.  When I get this opportunity, I normally like to start with the remake.  Psychologically there’s a bias towards the original, and upsetting the order seems to help.  But this time I chose to read the original story and identify what I think is most important before seeing where The Residents took it.  I’m treating it as an informal kind of personality or compatibility test.

As I read the story, I think it is about a man who can’t accept having an intelligent woman as a partner.  The main thrust of the narrative is the infatuation with Olympia, who is introduced immediately after Nathanael registers surprise that Clara can reason.  He assumes Olympia to be mentally deficient (the word he uses is “half-witted”).  Clara is the smartest, most dynamic character in the story, and yet she is rejected for someone who will patiently listen and not disagree, which leads to Nathanael’s downfall.  Other themes are at play, of course, most notably the struggle between reality and fantasy, but this proto-feminism I feel is the strongest aspect.  If I were to adapt this story, I would focus on that and downplay some of the problematic elements (such as Nathanael and Clara essentially being adoptive siblings, making their relationship uncomfortable by today’s standards).

The Residents find another aspect of the tale to focus on and present it in a thematically consistent way – they chose to spotlight insanity as seen from the inside.  They’ve even removed the explanation of who Nate’s childhood Sandman really was, which compromises the theme of dual reality – the situation is clear in the original, while with the album we only know that we’re being presented with a distorted view.  Plot-wise this isn’t critical, but it does drop what is otherwise a fine echo of the motif.  I imagine it came out of the need to change how Olympia is perceived by other men in the story.  It doesn’t make sense for her to deceive everyone based on how she is described.  Hoffman’s society didn’t have the concept of the uncanny valley, and while the story should be considered metaphorical, that part is just too far fetched.  And The Residents get credit for showcasing how Nate’s mental state is affected by whether he is in light or cast in shadow.

So my informal compatibility test reveals my mind views the world differently from The Residents.  Well, that hardly seems surprising.  If we agreed on everything I would have lost interest years ago.  I like both interpretations equally well.  Adaptations and remakes should make big changes – otherwise why bother at all?  I do think some of the dialogue in the new version could be improved.  Indeed, I have a strong urge to mark up the CD booklet with my red pencil.

Otherwise I do really enjoy this album.  I most love the prominent use of different actors.  The Voice of Midnight is more in line with the group’s trajectory over the past several years than Tweedles was.  I feel their plans now are to expand the public image of what “The Residents” means.  We’ve seen “The Residents present…” on the past few releases, and I think the intention is to open up the concept to more than just the core group.  The lead singer is the most easily recognized participant, and his minimized role here might be an indication that he’s preparing to move into more of a supervisory role.  It could be complete retirement, or it could just be that his doctor recommended he not scream so much.  Perhaps we’ll find out in the morning.

Glue It Down You Dripping Clown (Tweedles) Mon, 13 Nov 2006 23:17:20 +0000 Smile!  You're on Lurid Camera!The Residents seem to have wasted no time in producing their follow-up to River of Crime.  But this is no rush job, and supports what I have long suspected: most Residents projects take years to complete, and several are in progress at any given time.  It just so happens that the last two were finished close to one another.  Now I wonder if more will come shortly or if there will be a dry spell.  I don’t think they’d make two releases so close together unless they had the next one already well along its way.  But there’s no benefit in such speculation.

The new release is called Tweedles, and though it follows neatly with River of Crime, it is very much a successor to God in Three Persons.  Both tell the tale of a man who is so self-absorbed that he compulsively hurts others.  The difference is that Mr. X believes he is a good person, while Tweedles holds no such delusion.

The press release explicitly outs Tweedles as a kind of vampire, but so was Mr. X.  So was Silly Billy from Disfigured Night.  Vampirism is a common theme with The Residents, popping up from time to time in individual songs or spanning over entire projects.  The River of Crime narrator was also a vampire of sorts.  Now I’m wondering if Tweedles actually is a sequel after all.  Could it be that, after the discovery of his father’s demise, the narrator broke away from having normal healthy relationships?  He definitely didn’t want to be a criminal himself, and the actions of Tweedles are pretty much as bad as you can get while remaining just on this side of the law.  Maybe these projects being released so close to one another is not pure happenstance.  I’ll need to consider that possibility more fully someday.

I do have an issue with the artwork, but it’s not what one might expect.  Yes it borders on vulgarity, but it’s art.  Not to mention the cleverness in the slipcase cover – much could be said about perception and how that changes once all the facts are revealed, or about the gleeful subversion of having this image on prominent display in record stores.  My problem with the cover artwork is that it gives the game away.  Right away we suspect this is an album about a sexually deviant clown.  What should, in the course of the story, be a climactic reveal ends up being a confirmation of what was expected (granted, it’s not quite as literal, but close enough to take away the intended shock).  I’m hard pressed to think of any cover for a concept album that reveals so much about the contents.  Tommy only showed us a surrealist globe; The Wall just showed a wall.

Though perhaps giving so much away is the intent.  If nobody has done it before, then of course it’s worth trying. It’s a mystery novel approach, whereby all of the elements are laid out, and slowly the reader is given the connective tissue to build the beast (“oh, so that’s why there’s a clown on the cover”).

Is it successful?  It is in the sense that they did it, and it can always be argued that no experiment can be considered a failure.  I would have liked not to have the clown imagery hanging over this album on my first listen, though I suppose it is the best theme to use in the artwork.  They rarely go with something completely abstract.

Musically I find this album beautiful, and it’s a shame I get so easily distracted by the spoken words and artwork.  Incorporating a film orchestra as raw material (there’s that novel take on remixing again) is brilliant and gives The Residents a lush palette they haven’t had before.  But I can’t focus on it enough to fully appreciate it.  I hope they release a soundtrack version (like they did with God in Three Persons); this album definitely deserves that kind of special treatment.

A Mere Excuse For Letting Loose (The River of Crime) Fri, 11 Aug 2006 01:55:39 +0000 The slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.The latest Residents project has a whiff of old time radio about it.  That’s a bit of a misnomer; I don’t believe radio drama ever went away, but it’s definitely less prevalent these days.  And what better place to do something niche than on the Internet?  Podcasts are simply radio shows done online, but they’re mostly bored teenagers talking about themselves.  It’s a medium ripe for creative exploration, and I’m glad The Residents have dipped their collective toe into it, even if it’s only to show everybody else what they could be doing.

The River of Crime is presented in serial format, though it’s more of an anthology series with a common narrator than a single story.  It works well, though.  The problem with traditional serials is that the story stops and starts with each episode and is often padded to make each part fill the time.  The benefit with these self-contained stories is that they eliminate the continual arbitrary cliffhangers that plague a serial.

Of all the episodes, I like “The Beards” best.  There’s a special kind of horror in being caught in a situation that, from an outside perspective, looks criminally suspicious.  Child molestation is no joke, and to be merely accused of it is highly damaging.  Even if a person is proven to be innocent, that stigma will be carried forever, because a court’s decision is far outweighed by the public’s gossip.  Of all the stories in this series, this one seems like it will affect the narrator the most over time.

Scripts have been provided with each episode, perhaps to allow interested listeners to stage their own productions.  But in reality it gives us a tiny glimpse into how The Residents operate.  In the first script there is a note for two voices: “Already exists as archive recording; will use that or re-create.”  From this we learn two things: The Residents have done research and gathered real materials for this project, and they were open to the possibility of casting new actors late in the game.  The reasons to not use the archival recordings are likely due to how they’d fit (either sonically or in their pacing).  That they didn’t update the script before letting the public see it is a bold move for a group that banks on its mystery.  Or maybe they just forgot.  It happens.

Though a radio play at heart, the music of the series is very strong with many catchy melodies woven throughout.  Overall the sound seems closer to Demons Dance Alone, so it makes the path of the group’s movement a bit confusing.  It seems that they stepped forward with their remix projects, veered off another way with Animal Lover, and then went back again for this.  It does keep up the excellent use of other voices, though they seem to be taking a backseat once again.

At the same time, their interest in remixing continues, and is spread throughout the Internet.  On MySpace they have been releasing more songs under the RMX moniker (some of which are included as bonus material for River of Crime), and on YouTube they have a series of videos that take old educational films and add new soundtracks and narration, often funny and sometimes disturbing.  I suppose River of Crime is also a remix of sorts too, though it’s more in concept than content – it brings new technology to an old form.

Will there be more crimecasts?  I’d like to think so, and that is the implication.  But these five episodes form a nice arc and the only way forward would be to repeat the formula with another character (which is redundant and boring) or have the current narrator branch out into committing his own crimes (which is what other people would have done in the first place, so unoriginal and therefore boring).

No, I think the way forward is something new, but will retain the strong narrative element and remix sensibility we’ve seen with the last couple of releases.

Tell Me I’m Your Honey Bear (Animal Lover) Wed, 06 Apr 2005 01:51:02 +0000 The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.Animal Lover is not the successor to Brumalia that I had imagined, or indeed can imagine, even with the evidence right in front of me.  It feels like The Residents have taken a step back a few years, taken a different turn, and continued down a new path.  Perhaps Brumalia was an offshoot or considered a failure (or considered so successful that they are already finished with that direction).   This is what I respect most about The Residents: their willingness to try something new, and if they exhaust that possibility or it doesn’t work out, they regroup and carry on with something else.  The indomitability of the human spirit is always refreshing to see.

The album recalls a previous work, Eskimo, in that it is accompanied with short stories for each song which expand upon what we are hearing.  The difference here is that Eskimo was an instrumental album, so the stories provided context.  With Animal Lover, the stories present a different perspective, giving fullness to the narratives.

Most of the songs are written in first person point of view, while the stories are written in limited third person, revealing the inner thoughts of an animal.  Combined they provide a novel take on their subject matter, with the animals unknowingly offering poignant commentary on the human condition.  One song, “Inner Space,” is about a woman visiting her father as he lies on his deathbed.  The accompanying story is of a mouse who is excited to see the woman because she often drops bits of food on the floor.  We’re reminded that, while the death of a loved one is profoundly sad, there is a lot to be said for celebrating life and the many moments of joy it can provide.

There is a lot going on with this album.  The interaction between song lyric and story has been drawing most of my attention, so much so that when I stop to focus on the music I am especially impressed.  A press release claims the rhythm tracks are based on the mating sounds of cicadas and frogs; I don’t know whether or not that is true, but there is a lot to unpack here.  I normally describe Residents music as “complex minimalism,” meaning that it is composed of very simple elements that are then layered atop one another, forming a new type of cacophony: one from which you can clearly discern the individual parts.  But Animal Lover, at times, is more advanced.  I can’t precisely place my finger on it, but there’s definitely a maturity that is on display more prominently than it has been in the past.

One improvement I can recognize is their use of voices, which is the strongest of their career.  The Residents have employed many different singers in the past decade, but while they were all meant to be part of an amorphous collective, the result has always felt like “The Residents with special guests,” rather than an ever-expanding lineup of a singular musical entity.

With Animal Lover they have as many guest vocalists as ever, but for the first time it feels like one cohesive unit.  Oddly, it puts me in mind of “Old Brown Shoe” by The Beatles.  There’s a moment at the end when the entire group sings a line, and either through accidental distortion or purposeful production work, it sounds completely different from any other Beatles song.  In fact, it is my favorite song of theirs because of that strange moment when you wonder if another band has entered the studio.

The Residents of course have not been replaced by another band.  They’ve just finally gotten comfortable and come into their own, as far as what constitutes the group at this time.  That definition has changed before, and it will change again.  They are always either moving toward or away from another incarnation, but for a few moments they are that incarnation totally, completely, and without reservation.

Animal Lover is one of those rare moments of perfect alignment.

Remembering Only What I Wanted It To Be, Not What It Was (WB:RMX) Wed, 31 Mar 2004 17:43:38 +0000 Feets, Don't Fail Me Now: RMXOnce upon a time there was a group of musical artists who pioneered their own way in the world.  But before once upon a time there were a bunch of kids who wanted to start a rock band and get a record contract.  Those kids recorded a demo and sent it to Warner Brothers.  It was rejected and they never became the rock band.  They became The Residents, and the world is better for it.

WB:RMX is the first official release of material from The Warner Bros Album which, legend has it, led to the group’s name.  The original album has attained legendary status among fans, many clamoring for it to be made available.  And now it has finally been released, but with a catch: it has been heavily remixed with new music.

How will the fans, those who have been salivating for this early material ever since they learned of its existence, respond to it?  On the one hand it can feel like their wishes not only have been granted, but also new work has been put into the album, indicating a real interest on the part of The Residents, a group that has traditionally played down this material so much as to practically deny its existence.  On the other hand it can feel like a slap in the face: “no, you can’t have it, and here’s bizarre rendering of it designed to mock you.”  Evidence of the latter would be the twisted cassette version of the 1977 Radio Special; evidence of the former would be all of the remix projects they’ve been releasing lately (expanded Freak Show and DVD releases of Eskimo, Disfigured Night, and Demons Dance Alone).

I think it’s a little bit of both.  The Residents clearly keep a distance between themselves and this early recording, treating it as a completely separate entity, and providing complete freedom to manipulate it as they see fit.  But they’ve also neglected to release the album in its original form, implicitly setting up RMX as the real version, not to be compared with the source, as is so often the intent of a remix project.  The listener is usually rewarded for being familiar with the original work, picking up on what has and hasn’t been changed.  Here, that is not permitted.  Everything is new to the listener, and the distinction between original and remix gets muddied a bit.  There are moments that are undoubtedly old, and others that are undoubtedly new, but there is a wealth of material between those extremes.  Maybe it’s new and using more traditional instruments; maybe it’s old but run through a computer.  This album represents a view of life that believes we never leave our past behind, that it remains interwoven with the present and shapes our future.

In denying the existence of this material for so long, The Residents had been running from their past, though at this point in their career it becomes a bit understandable.  Like looking at childhood photographs, they probably don’t even recognize the creators of these 1971 tapes.  To put it out unaltered under the name “Residents” would be blatantly false, and to use an entirely different name would just be awkward.  But if we look at this, not from now to then, but from then to now, the story is different.  Imagine if you knew that, in the future, you would try to forget who you are and what you are doing right now – indeed, if you were to have no presence in your future.  That’s a terrible feeling, and nobody deserves that.  In accepting this early material, The Residents are accepting their former selves, at the very least as valuable collaborators.  And for a bunch of kids just starting out, uncertain of direction but armed with a big dream of mixing art with music, working with a group such as The Residents must feel like the greatest opportunity imaginable.  We should watch that young group; I think they might wind up doing something very interesting.

I Wonder If They Have Christmas On The Other Side (12 Days of Brumalia) Tue, 06 Jan 2004 12:47:58 +0000 I want my goose to lay a Marathon station for Brumalia.Another holiday season comes to a close.  For many it’s a stressful time, packed with family obligations and an inescapable evaluation of how well you’ve done the past year.  It could be better.   It could be, say, a celebration of life and sharing.  Some people work to make that happen…

The Residents have been putting a song on their new website every day for the past thirteen days (well, except for Saturday, when there was an additional bonus track).  Collectively the fourteen songs are called The Twelve Days Of Brumalia, which expectedly makes numerous references to the Christmas carol, but more importantly showcase a bit of the group’s internal creative process.

Many of the song titles are playful variations on the original lyrics, such as “Partridge Pairing” and “Lying Goose.”  My favorite is “Wiggling Wahines” in place of “nine ladies dancing” (I did have to look up “wahines” and that’s probably why I like this one best – that, and the hula-dancing Homer Simpson which accompanies it).  The images (one for every song) often provide a visual pun –  a calling Tweety Bird, a pipe organ paired with a Piper airplane, etc.  Even before getting to the music, a great sense of fun permeates this project.  And why not?  It’s a gift for fans, a way to say thank you for being there.

The pictures incorporate two other themes: religious images and water.  The first is obvious: the winter solstice is a holiday for many religions, and The Residents draw attention to this fact, blending the ideologies together.  Not in a dismissive way or out of ignorance, but with a sense of inclusion.  The Internet, more than anything else, provides the means through which we can have a true global community.  And Brumalia is a block party for all who wish to visit.

As for the water… at first I thought the images were sinking.  Or that the water was rising to engulf them.  But now I think they are rising from the water.  Water: the basis of life.  From the depths comes a new creature.  And the new creature The Residents have brought?  None other than themselves.  They are changing again.

It is traditional for The Residents to announce their new perspective with a holiday release that is given away for free.  Brumalia is Santa Dog for the twenty-first century.  It reflects a change in how they approach music.  Granted, there is a fair amount of material from Demons Dance Alone included, but that only solidifies what appears to be a new direction for the group: music as elements to be manipulated, not unlike a DJ’s remix of a song.  Which, when said that way, sounds like what they’ve always done.  But the method has changed.  Same intent, different tools.

The source material also differs from the remix.  Some Brumalia tracks do come from older recordings, but most are entirely new, indicating that The Residents don’t see the need to let a piece of music age before feeding it into their music machine.  All notes, all sounds – equal in their eyes.  This is the New Residents.

It’s still early, and they are feeling their way around their new surroundings.  Brumalia is a collection of experiments.  Successful experiments, mind you – they wouldn’t hand out their failures as holiday gifts.  But I think it’s safe to say that this project is more varied, more eclectic – more schizophrenic, even – than what we’ll see from them next.  The Residents operate by jumping into interesting looking boxes and pushing against the walls to see which give and which have just the right amount of resistance.  Some pieces from Brumalia came easily for them, and some were too difficult or ultimately unsatisfying.  But somewhere in the middle they find the ideas and techniques that itch.  It might be a thematic concept, it might be a particular musical style, it might be a technique for producing these sounds.  Whatever it is, they’ve found it, and found it worth exploring.  Next step: scratch that itch.

Caught Between Confusion And The Need To Know We Are Alive (Demons Dance Alone) Tue, 13 Aug 2002 13:47:56 +0000 I want to hold your head.

When Pearl Harbor was hit I was a young boy.  My natural feelings were confusion and fear.  My unnatural feelings – the ones I was told to have – were anger and bloodlust.  Everyone was expected to despise any friends or neighbors who originally came from Japan.  We didn’t have any Japanese descendants in my school, so the Chinese kids would have to do.  Racism back then was all-inclusive.

Now I’m an old man living in a modern, more accepting society.  The attacks last year left everyone confused and fearful.  But very quickly we were told to hate.  In my town, a friendly, hard-working Pakistani gentleman found the windows of his small business smashed in and “terrist” [sic] spray painted on his walls, because he looked close enough.  I’m sure somebody is happy that we’ve held on to the values from the good old days.

Music, the most popular medium through which we express our feelings, is not a whole lot better.  While we’re not hearing songs of violent revenge, we’ve been inundated with overly patriotic messages that are just bland as entertainment.  Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll” is the only one with any substance or humanity in it, particularly when he sings “I hope that we’re forgiven” – otherwise it’s another call to arms.

But a few weeks ago The Residents released their latest, Demons Dance Alone, which embraces the true feelings so many want to hide away.  It is divided into sections, the first being “Loss” and the second “Denial.”  Obviously referencing the stages of grief, the group adroitly folds anger, bargaining and depression into “Three Metaphors,” on the one hand avoiding the popular rage and at the same time reinforcing the idea that we don’t have to treat those stages literally.

As for acceptance, that may be the hardest for many because, at least as I interpret it, The Residents are saying that which should be obvious but seldom is: demons dance alone.  Demons are the ones who let base emotion overrule their thinking (made visually obvious by the image of the heart protruding from the demon’s brain).  They are small in number, and it is not a worldwide conspiracy.  Your neighbor is probably not a demon.  But that sentiment is highly unpopular in this country; if he looks like he might be a demon, then you should assume he is and attack, just to be safe.

And that may be a reason that nearly all of the vocals on this album are subdued.  More sung than spoken, but just barely so.  Tentative voices, like they want to be heard but are either afraid of how they will be received or just respectful of the silence their message necessarily breaks.  These are the vocals of caution, confusion, and worry.

Musically, The Residents are at their most approachable, which is another way of being subdued.  It has the core musicality – the sonic fingerprints – of the group,  but forgoes their usual topcoat of broad experimentation.  But this is not an attempt to widen their fan base by changing their sound, nor is it laziness (it’s tempting to believe every Residents composition starts out completely “normal” and is run through various filters of oddity, but that’s just not the case).  Just like the vocals, the music is deliberate in its low profile; it’s “in your face” by being the complete opposite.

Whether the controlling reason was time (The Residents wanted to capture a moment with purity) or expression (The Residents wanted to change up their sound enough that listeners simply had to take notice), the effect is the same: Demons Dance Alone is an album that is outside anything The Residents have ever done, but fits squarely within the experience of every person who has ever dealt with extreme loss.

In a country that every day becomes more chest-thumpingly jingoistic and overconfident, a simple message of what is at the heart of our national mindset – confusion, fear, and weakness – seems to be the boldest statement that can possibly be made.