Yearly Archives: 1979

The Iceman Just Took A Turn For The Better (Eskimo)

So what makes you so high and mighty, will you tell me that? Didn't you ever try looking at your own eyeballs in the mirror?The new Residents album is such a departure from what they’ve been doing recently that I have trouble placing it into a coherent narrative of the band. If the liner notes are to be believed, this album began life three years ago, making it the third album (or the fourth, if the liner notes of Not Available are to be believed). It feels like closer kin to Fingerprince than Duck Stab, and it’s almost as if we are presented with an alternative history: what if The Residents were more interested in the second side of Fingerprince than the first?

And not only are we getting an alternative version of The Residents, but they are also giving us an alternative version of Eskimo culture. I don’t have the knowledge to debunk all of the claims this album makes, but I know many are untrue and there are clues throughout that The Residents are making a joke. But the Eskimo are not the target, only the vehicle. The Residents are satirizing how Western culture views anything other than itself.

The Other is always seen as isolated and bizarre, and any similarity is purely accidental and must be marginalized. Forty words for snow is often touted as a strange quirk of the Eskimo, but there are two reasons to question that claim. First – and most damning – where’s this list of forty words? The articles I’ve read that cover this topic only manage to provide about a dozen examples. Second – and this drives the point home even without the list – we also describe many different types of snow in English. Snow, sleet, hail, blizzard, flurry, slush. And when we run out of distinct words we use modifiers to extend the language. Packing snow, blowing snow, Spring snow, snowdrift. That’s just off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are many more. It should not be surprising if an in-depth study finds there is a direct mapping of snow words between both languages, but unfortunately that would make The Other more like us, and we can’t have that, can we?

The Residents know this, and have turned a critical gaze towards our own xenophobia. Eskimo is not about The Other, it’s about us and our distorted worldview. This record is being distributed in the continental United States, and though it may find its way into an igloo, we are the intended audience. Nowhere is this more evident than at the conclusion of the album when the ceremonial chants (probably having been fabricated the whole time anyway) are replaced with jingles for toilet paper and soft drinks. With that in mind, it’s clear from the cover that The Residents are looking at us and reflecting what they see. They may be wearing “penguin suits” but they are too conspicuous to blend with their surroundings (especially as penguins are found in the southern hemisphere). They represent us and our insincere, lackadaisical attempt to understand other cultures. The elements of the image add up to a formal, cold, uncaring gaze. There is none of the warmth that should accompany an exploration of a group of fellow humans. We don’t see fellow humans; we see The Other.

That’s not to say that the album would not be insulting to an actual Eskimo person. But the insult takes the form of being yet another misrepresentation by ignorant Americans. In other words, it’s nothing new to them, and that says much about how we already treat our fellow man.

As for the stories printed inside, they ring of enough authenticity to at least be inspired by true legends. But though they may be true legends, they are not true stories. Another society’s mythology should not be mistaken for fact any more than our stories of a giant lumberjack and his blue ox should be presented as truth.

Of all the albums I’ve heard that criticize American culture, Eskimo (though subtler about it) is the most scathing, making it the most “punk” record I’ve yet heard.

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.