The Residents have released another volume in their American Composers Series, and this one even more clearly emphasizes their latter-day approach of honest appreciation for the music. Gone are the days of pure deconstructions of pop hits; now they also construct something new using the base elements. The Hank Williams side sounds almost nothing like the originals, but the heart is there. These are respectful (though not faithful) interpretations, adding a dimension to the already excellent songs. The Sousaside does bring a bit of oddity to the compositions, but we are talking about marching bands after all. When the audience stays put while the band dances, you’re already dealing with some kind of alternate universe.
When I first heard the song “Kaw-Liga” I was amazed by its ingenuity. A love song from the point of view of an inanimate object is brilliant, and for years I presented it to my classes as a shining example of personification. Most of the stories my students wrote in response were dreadfully derivative (lots of totem poles falling in love with their various faces) but every once in a while something amazing came through. I still remember one student who wrote a heartwrenching soliloquy about the remorse of old age: the feeling of uselessness, of seeing attention go to those who are younger, and the jealousy and longing for youth – feelings that even I hadn’t experienced – pouring from a girl half my age. Only at the end did the narrator reveal she was a Model T Ford watching the new cars from her lonely, dusty garage.
It’s very rare to find a popular song with educational merit, but by the time the 1970s came around my students increasingly responded to the song as being “old people’s music,” and I knew its usefulness as a teaching tool was lost. I am absolutely delighted that The Residents have resurfaced the song, and melding it with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” will guarantee its relevancy for years to come.
What the second side really illustrates is that the Residents are not performing these songs so much as suggesting them. The melodies are off just enough to not be accurate renditions, but close enough that it’s easy to tell what it being alluded to, and the listener can’t help but hear the original tune meshed with the Residents version. This is, in fact, how they operate every time they perform someone else’s music. Usually there are vocals that mask how clever the arrangements are. They could, indeed, get away with releasing these songs as original compositions that are merely inspired by other works. There’s a great business in “soundalike” songs for soundtrack and commercial music, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn The Residents are occasionally hired to do just that. They’ve already demonstrated they can sound like a typical pop band if they wished, and maybe they wish to do so when an advertising agency is writing a check. Say what one will about selling music for commercials, as a musician it must be nice to occasionally be paid up front for commissioned work as opposed to spending a year on something and hoping that it will catch on with audiences.
And I think the world is warming up to this kind of music. It’s an inevitable conclusion, as every popular form of music was considered outlandish when first presented, but in this case I think there’s a slight difference. This music is postmodern in nature, in that it feeds upon its parent form. Punk still does that to a degree, but punk is usually concerned with the ideas of the status quo. The Residents also play with ideas, but more interesting is how they are concerned with the music of the masses, and wish to explore how it looks when twisted and shown under differently color lights, or even in the dark. I don’t know if The Residents themselves will catch on, but someone who uses modern pop music as raw material will.