When The Beatles released “I Am The Walrus” I thought it was the most unusual song I’d ever heard and there could not possibly be anything stranger. Listening to it now, though, it sounds like a standard pop song. Which it always was, of course, but the way it was produced was so utterly different from standard practice that, at the time, it seemed like a tune from outer space.
And that’s how I feel about the latest Residents album. Right now it’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard, but I suppose some day I will consider it perfectly ordinary.
The album takes the utmost familiar – songs from George Gershwin and James Brown – and skews them. But – very importantly – it doesn’t skewer them. Unlike with their past interpretations, The Residents are not mocking their subjects. This time they are honestly paying tribute to the original artists.
And that’s where it gets weird. It’s weird because these versions are incredibly different from the originals, yet they are not a rejection. There is no malice, no sense of “we hate your song so much, we won’t even bother to play it well.” Instead it comes off as “we respect your work so much we want to integrate it with our own.”
The George side of this album is gently haunting. The familiar melodies float up from a bed of electronic ambient sound to embrace you. It’s no replacement for, say, Ella Fitzgerald, but somehow it’s a fitting complement. I have little else to say about this side because it’s beautiful and speaks for itself.
The James side, however, does skirt the edge of mockery with its slowed-down vocals (I tried listening to it at 45 RPM just in case there was a pressing error, but although the voice came out more or less normal, it just didn’t feel right). But if they were mocking James Brown they wouldn’t have retained so many of his vocalizations. This level of attention can only come out of a true appreciation. Anyone mocking the album would have found a couple of cheap jokes and wrapped it up in under five minutes. That said, I still think The Residents missed a trick by not having “I’ve Lost Someone” pause for several seconds in the middle.
But in one crucial aspect The Residents have disregarded the original: the audience. On Live At The Apollo, the audience is just as integral as the performers on stage. My favorite part is when James Brown steps away from the microphone and continues to sing to the audience. Or possibly from within the audience, for all I know. Brown played the crowd like an instrument, and their responses are partly what makes that album so wonderful. There is crowd noise with The Residents, but it is just that: noise. It is a constant bed of cheering that ceases to be human in origin and becomes artificial.
With anyone else, de-emphasizing the audience in this way would paint the performer as insincere, accusing him of scripting and rehearsing his stage patter to obtain a desired effect, like a politician slipping in references to local sports teams to make the crowd think he’s interested in them. But nobody can accuse James Brown of not honestly loving his audience. No, here The Residents are commenting upon themselves.
On this record, The Residents are speaking the same words Brown used to connect with his audience. But there is no connection here. They recently encountered live audiences during their Mole Show – do they feel that they were unable to connect as they had wished? Is this why they have seemingly lost interest in the final part of their Mole Trilogy? Their creative blockage is certainly not due to the size of the project – this American Composers Series promises to be much larger still. I think they intended the Mole Trilogy to reach people and they believe it failed. So the band is retreating into their familiar studio, reworking familiar music into something utterly different.