An anniversary album should be a celebration of what a band does best. But instead most anniversary albums are what a record label does best: re-release available material to generate new sales. What The Residents do best is present our culture back to us, filtered through their skewed – but not completely inaccurate – perspective. In the case of Our Finest Flowers, they have presented exactly what we expect in a twentieth anniversary release (a collection of old songs), but done in Residents style (reinterpreted into something entirely new). They’ve done this by cherry picking parts from different songs and writing new ones from the pieces. It is brilliant in its simplicity of concept, as well as in its complexity of execution.
This album maintains cohesion not just by being recorded with the same instrumentation, but also by crafting many of the selections to flow into one another. Take for example the melody line that appears at the end of “I’m Dreaming of a White Sailor” and lasts all throughout “Or Maybe a Marine.” Or the rhythm of “Six Things To A Cycle” that permeates “The Sour Song” and is made explicit in “Six Amber Things.” The official story is that the idea for this project spawned from a joke, but it’s obvious that careful consideration went into the production of this album. There are so many moments culled from other songs that I’ll probably continue identifying them for years to come.
It’s no coincidence the liner notes describe the entire Residents career as “regurgitation.” The backstory is partially written for shock value, but at the core is the truth: The Residents take things in, digest them, and return them mixed with their own juices. They have traditionally positioned themselves as outsiders, as observers and reporters of our culture. With this album they are making two new statements. First, they are not immune to their own medicine, and can target themselves just as well as they can target others. And secondly, by repositioning themselves as subjects worthy of the treatment, they now see themselves as part of the cultural landscape they’ve been observing all these years.
Arguably we’ve seen them do this before. “Santa Dog” has had several interpretations, though they never seemed to say more than “this is what we sound like now.” We could also say that mixing songs is not new, citing their pairing of “Kaw-Liga” and “Billie Jean.” But that seems more like the hot topic of the past few years, sampling. Our Finest Flowers is a cousin to that, but seems to be something new. Will it catch on? Maybe, but it could only be done by the few artists who own their back catalogue or at least remain with the same publishing company. John Fogerty would not be able to attempt it without trouble, as was proven recently.
And how is the result? Not at all gimmicky as one might imagine. Each song has had new life breathed into it. These may not all be the best versions, but they are certainly acceptable alternates. This album could also act very well as an introduction to the group. Greatest hits compilations come with a sales risk – if the buyer enjoys it and wants more, there is a tendency to avoid picking up other albums that include several songs from the compilation. Here, that is not a problem. If someone likes this album, there is no reason not to buy another Residents album, apart from the knowledge that very few Residents albums sound similar to one another.
What The Residents have created is an anniversary release that will not become obsolete. Any compilation created by a still-active band will necessarily be superseded by a future compilation, and likely disappear from a fan’s music shelf, leaving a gap in what should have been a landmark year. But in another twenty years Our Finest Flowers will still be relevant, and that will allow fans – as well as The Residents – to look back on it with pride.