“Hit The Road Jack” finds The Residents in their now familiar mode of reinterpreting songs written by others. Though I don’t think “reinterpret” is the most accurate word. Yes, the song as played here sounds distinctly like The Residents and nobody else, but the song itself has not changed, nor has this version emphasized a detail I’ve overlooked before. When they covered The Rolling Stones, it was a psychopathic tour de force. When they covered Hank Williams, they celebrated the music. When they covered James Brown, they made me focus entirely on the man’s performance, and not their own performance (or even the music at all).
But what does this recording do? I can’t read anything into it, other than perhaps they like the original song (and in all honesty, nobody dislikes it). I toyed with the idea that it’s part of another American Composers Series project. Maybe they were working on a Ray Charles album, and then noticed he didn’t write this song, so they put it out as a single instead. Or perhaps they are working on a Percy Mayfield album. That could be very interesting. I know next to nothing about the man, and a direction I’d really like to see the American Composers Series take is to celebrate the composers who have been overshadowed by the success others have had with their music. Due to the very nature of that idea, I can’t think of many examples. Lieber-Stoller is the only one I can think of off the top of my head. I don’t even know their first names, but I certainly know a lot of their songs.
But in reality, I think this is a fluff piece, filler, probably something they did in the studio while taking a break from something else. It does grab my interest in the sense that I wonder what that something else could be, but as for this particular recording? I’m sure it was fun – or at least relaxing – for the band to record, but it does little more than fill a few minutes of time.
The b-side is an excerpt from another new release, “For Elsie,” which is their take on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” It is the intermission music from their most recent concert tour, so it was designed to underscore crowds getting drinks and using the restroom. It’s not quite the fluff piece “Hit The Road Jack,” is, but it wasn’t intended to be a headliner, either.
It is notable that this is credited to The Residents, and “based on” Beethoven, and on the full release the credit goes further to say that Beethoven “stole it off some folk tune.” I have never heard this claim before, but it’s not entirely surprising. Musicologists are always digging up new information about classical composers. It could very well be true. It could very well be false.
But if I consider the statement to be true, it makes me think of the Charles/Mayfield situation. Most people (understandably) assume Ray Charles wrote “Hit The Road Jack” because he recorded the definitive version of it. And most people (understandably) assume Beethoven wrote “Fur Elise” because, well, he claimed to have written it. Two different scenarios, but the same result. So what do The Residents do to expose this injustice? They record versions of both songs, but on one they take credit themselves – the one they claim was stolen in the first place. As for the other, they credit the rightful author and take pains to ensure their performance does not sound at all like the most popular version. They want us to hear the song, and not picture the person most strongly identified with it.
Which seems to be just what The Residents have been doing for years: “don’t look at us, look at our art.” Whether or not they went through the trouble to link two unspectacular releases for the sole purpose of making this point, I don’t know. But I’m feeling generous, and I’ll say they did.