They offer silly words dressed in a discordant wolf’s clothing. The seven songs of Duck Stab! are short and jaunty, almost as if The Residents are embracing something closer to a pop song format. But we shouldn’t believe they are settling.
Their Beatles record, in retrospect, hinted at this break from their past and positioned as models the group arguably considered to be the pinnacle of mainstream success. It may not happen overnight, but I won’t be surprised if The Residents churn out Top 40 hits before too long. However, that kind of change may be fleeting.
While these songs may mimic one aspect of pop music, they are purposefully avoiding others. Besides the obvious strangeness of the sound, most of these songs lack the traditional verse/chorus structure so crucial to commercial music. Yet I believe this is a transitional release, and that The Residents are headed for commercial inevitability.
“The Laughing Song” leads directly from this. The song has a frantic, almost demented sound, but the lyrics echo the whimsy of Edward Lear. The laughter turns out to be less psychotic than one might initially expect – The Residents are honestly having fun here, something else I was not expecting.
The artwork for Duck Stab! returns to the sophistication of Fingerprince, though it is much more sinister. Where before we had an out of focus photograph rendered with inviting sepia tones, here we have a high-contrast image rendered only in red and white on a black background. Though upon closer inspection we see that the content of the image may not be sinister at all – it looks as if Harpo Marx is simply preparing to make his famous duck soup.
The Residents seem to have an overarching theme of constantly pursuing new sounds and ideas, so it’s not a stretch to imagine they will get their fifteen minutes of fame, but will not complain once it passes. Or perhaps one day they will target themselves in a medley of deconstructed pop songs.
For over a decade I’ve been recording my thoughts about the music I listen to. It’s usually pretty easy to write because it follows the same general template. By that I mean the writing, not the music. The standard music review consists of discussing the single, deconstructing one or two other songs, and speculating on what it means for the artist. The Residents always make me work harder. They don’t have singles for their albums, I can’t begin to deconstruct something that is ultimately minimalism (though often complex layers of minimalism), and – even if I had names to go with this band – these songs behave like traditional nursery rhymes for all the revelations they provide about the performers.
Duck Stab! / Buster & Glen is an album that refuses to be considered an album. The first side is previously released, but I can’t call those seven songs the single. The second side maintains a separate identity with its own name and artwork so that from outward appearances this is a kind of compilation record.
Inside, however, it’s a different story. These two sides clearly belong together, which is a departure from previous Residents releases. In the past they’ve presented clear dichotomies, and here – with an outside that promises two differing works – they create a rare unity. Thinking back I believe only Not Available has done this. Perhaps in unearthing that album they decided to permanently forego duality, at least as far as the music is concerned.
And yet the sides feel different to me, though I can’t pinpoint any aspect that divides them. The songs all sound similar, but maybe familiarity makes the duck side feel stronger than the dog side. Buster & Glen feels like someone trying to emulate Duck Stab! and doing a phenomenal job at it. Heard in isolation it’s very enjoyable (as much as a Residents record can be), but the way the album is presented begs me to choose a side. I don’t know if there’s a correct answer.
[Editor’s note: You’ve probably figured it out, but I took my grandfather’s review of the original Duck Stab EP, reordered it according to the way the album version reordered the songs, and pasted it at the beginning of this review. Apologies if it upset you.]