Sharing Air With Orioles (Subterranean Modern)

Ugh, just look at that blatant product placement for Friskies cat food!Subterranean Modern has a lot in common with Santa Dog. It’s a compilation of four bands released by Ralph Records. There’s a common thread throughout (this time it’s the song “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.”) Also, all of these bands are actually The Residents.

They pulled this stunt in 1972, and came clean last year. Well, I won’t be fooled a second time. I know all of these people are The Residents. They sound completely different from each other, but The Residents have been known to change. On the back there are photos of each “band,” but only one allows you to clearly make out all of the individual faces. Same people, different names. Or even hired models. I should probably rethink Snakefinger and Schwump as well.

Except I already know about Chrome. And The Residents are becoming too singular in their sound to diverge in these ways. But I feel they want us to at least momentarily think they are up to their old tricks. The setup is too obvious. But to what purpose? Perhaps they want to appear bigger, more important and all-encompassing than they are. The new ambassadors of the San Francisco music scene, maybe. This could be an attempt to take the reigns from stalwarts Jefferson Starship and the Grateful Dead, who have arguably diverged from their original intent. Change in sound is exciting, of course, but change in core philosophy is a more difficult pill to swallow, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that these formerly subversive acts are anything but these days.

Chrome continues to evolve while remaining steadfastly difficult. From Alien Soundtracks to Half Machine Lip Moves they developed a more unified sound, and at the time I predicted they’d soon sound like most other bands. But that hasn’t come to pass. I noted before that they were mostly held back by poor recordings that kept many instruments sounding muddy. Now with this latest offering, they clearly have better control over their recorded sound, but have purposefully sabotaged it by bringing the drone to the forefront. Whether misguided or not, they are making deliberate artistic decisions about their output, and for that reason I now look forward to their next release.

MX-80 Sound is a new band and makes a very strong 10-minute first impression. They definitely come from the modern era of chaotic, loose, noisy rock music, but they seem to exert control over the proceedings. “Possessed” is the standout track, though it might be less “control over chaos” and more “not yet comfortable with music.” In either case, they’ll be worth following.

The Residents stand out from the others with their patented complex minimalism. While other bands turn up their guitars and pound their drums, The Residents use a very light touch on their instruments and cut through to the listener. “Is He Really Bringing Roses?” to me is the definitive document of what a Residents song sounds like.

Tuxedomoon is an interesting counterpoint to Chrome. With Chrome I get the sense they create songs and then overlay them with droning noise. Tuxedomoon, conversely, seems to begin with the drone and find the beat within that. I like the concept, but don’t think I could stand a full half hour. Still, they are new, and might find stronger footing in another year or so. I’ll put them on probation until they have a full album.

In the end this collection also acts as a bootstrapping of Ralph Records, this time doing it with four real bands. They are presented in alphabetical order so as not to show preferential treatment. It’s primarily a showcase and promotional tool for the artists, and additionally can be viewed either as a celebration or condemnation of San Francisco’s music scene. A celebration of the new underground, a condemnation of the old, now mainstream. And that’s the problem with successful subversion – once you win, you become part of the establishment. Can this new vanguard remain relevant? We shall see.