Yearly Archives: 2001

We Gonna Take A Ride! (High Horses)

The Wackyland Rubber Band.First of all, the packaging is by far the most clever construction for what is at heart just a cardboard sleeve.  Ordinarily this level of effort would be reserved for a special anniversary release.  The “Factoid-a-Round” – though a simple device – when coupled with the project’s theme becomes nothing short of perfection, just as a carousel is merely a rotating platform with horse-shaped chairs that becomes a magical experience when a child rides it.

And it is the magic of the child’s perception that The Residents are tapping into here.  We have a carousel ride, as well as the mentality of the question “why not?”  It is largely a rhetorical question, and while children do not tend to speak it aloud when trying something new they do fully embrace the feeling it evokes.  The music comes from public domain selections (anonymous, of course) and has been reinterpreted through the filter of the rider.  Now, here is where the childhood metaphor breaks down a bit.  The filter of the child has been replaced with the filter of LSD.  There is no doubt that The Residents used this drug (and likely others) given where and when they started out, but this is not a celebration of drug culture.  The liner notes steer away from stating something like “this is what The Residents remember from their druggie days” – not so much because it’s a view into their personal lives but because this is supposed to be a story about an experience.  The protagonist of the story is you, and as with any story written in second person, the characterization melts away and the events and feelings of the tale take center stage.  In the end, it is about the musical experience, the liner notes asking you to use headphones in lieu of drugs in order to enjoy it.

But the experience, remember, is a filtered experience.  If this were to represent a real carousel, the sound would mostly be coming in through only one ear, and would be terribly loud and distorted.  The Residents wisely chose to have the music revolve around the listener instead.  As it swirls around, sometimes I detect different instruments moving at different speeds, or even turning in opposite directions.  It’s difficult to follow, and eventually I stop trying and just let the sounds come whenever and from wherever they want, which is exactly what this project intends.

Symbolically speaking, it seems The Residents are starting over.  We are told this story starts in 1970, in San Francisco, and that it continues with this piece of music.  It does not continue with thirty years of anything in between, but immediately with this piece.  So in a very real sense, this is the origin story of The Residents: a madman’s mechanical Gamelan, taking in familiar surroundings and lacing them with some experimentation.  Or perhaps tinkering is a better word, given that this project is credited to the Combo de Mechanico, which sounds a like a windup toy a child might be interested in pulling apart to figure out how it works.

As for the composition, there’s not much to say.  It’s public domain music, cut and mixed up to create something new.  In this respect High Horses forms a trilogy with The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll and Pollex Christi, though it obviously is a closer cousin to the latter.  So, given that the music is not new, and that the collage technique has been done before, The Residents must want us to focus on what is left: the sound.  The Residents are very interested in the sound of the music, and not necessarily the notes or rhythms.  Changes there would be in service to the overall experience, and not due to the need to make a pretty melody.  This is arguably how the group started, so High Horses represents a “what if?” scenario, allowing them to explore how they might have turned out given a different set of experiences.  Or if not “what if?” then certainly “why not?”

It Might Explode With New Life (Icky Flix)

Oh Icky you're so fine.The Residents have released a DVD collecting all of their music videos, plus newly created videos, plus newly recorded soundtracks to those videos.  What could have been a simple compilation of existing material has instead been treated as an original project, and the result is enlightening.  What makes this work as a unit is the new soundtrack.  The original music is from several eras, and if played straight through this does feel like a typical compilation.  But the new music, all recently recorded, unifies their entire history.  No longer are these curated moments from various points in the past – this is a single project, the new project, called Icky Flix.

For the past decade The Residents have shown an interest in revisiting and reinterpreting themselves.  It began with a jumbled career retrospective, followed by several iterations of their Freak Show concept, then a new album which was changed drastically when taken to the stage, a look back at dogs of Christmas past, and now a different kind of career retrospective to provide another bookend.

Icky Flix is a companion piece to their Santa Dog collection, which also alternated old and new material.  In this case the old and new videos alternate, but for old and new music the viewer needs to make an explicit choice from the menu.  This is important in understanding the intent.  While there is certainly a retrospective element, it’s real focus is the new material.  The Residents are aware that, for any of us, our present selves are the culmination of our past experiences and achievements.  That is what Icky Flix represents: a history that when summed up gives us the present state.  The collected original music reviews the past, the new music reflects where they are now, and plotting the line between them hints at where they are going.  Alternating the old and new videos, though, serves as a constant reminder that the past is always present, interacting with and influencing us every day.

As is often the case, The Residents have presented themselves with a creative challenge.  Usually, when a musician re-records a song, the new version is wildly different.  Perhaps it’s slowed down, or sped up, or changed from a rock beat to a waltz beat, or any number of other ways to shake things up.  But because they still need to fit the original video, the songs are confined to the original length, which has forced The Residents to remain somewhat faithful to the original while trying to break new ground.  They have met this challenge with several different methods.  Having a female vocal on “This Is A Man’s World” is a masterstroke, completely changing the emotional tone of the song.  “Constantinople” uses a wildly different vocal style, but it perfectly matches the singing mouth in the video, including the spoken section at the end.  In a nice inversion, it’s a delight to see the guitar solo in “Moisture” more closely approximate what the actor is doing on the screen (the original song does not match it at all, being either a mistake or a commentary about the unreality of music video).

But the group broke out of this self-imposed confinement with “Just For You” which bears only a passing resemblance to their rendition of “We Are The World.”  Here there was no attempt to match new vocals to the original footage, instead singing of being a fake, a ripoff, and pretentious.  Are The Residents speaking about themselves, or are they satirizing Michael Jackson?  Maybe it is simply a legal consideration, this being a widely distributed release and more likely to get them in trouble if the title “We Are The World” appears on the back cover.

Whatever the reason, it fits the theme perfectly: The Residents are stepping beyond revisiting and are headed towards new endeavors.  I don’t think we will see this kind of introspection again for a while.  The future is composed solely of possibilities, and that’s far more attractive than a past of certainties.