Wednesday, September 02, 2009

There Was a Time When I'd Buy Anything By...The Residents (But Now They Just Annoy Me)

So you're in highschool and you've just discovered musical alternatives -- life isn't just about Tom Petty and The Tragically Hip. Like many teenagers you decide you have to experience the weirdest, most extreme things you can find, especially if you have to search in the darkest corners of the music bin to find them.

You start watching "City Limits," the MuchMusic show devoted to alternative music, and though much of the program is devoted to the Manchester scene (which you're not interested in) and industrial music (which you've already dived headfirst into), you are mortally struck by this video: "Hello Skinny" by The Residents.

Grotesque! Scary! Self-referential! Drug-inspired! Simultaneously visceral and intelligent! Absurdist! A complex mythology involving anonymous guys who wear eyeballs on their heads! Seriously, The Residents were about as obscure and "out there" you could possibly get while still being available and (somewhat) accessible.

You begin to collect their music, spending vast sums of money on whatever you can find. Some of it you love -- and you very much enjoy the IDEA of the group -- but you soon realize that sometimes...well, The Residents SUCK.

Their early days of vim and verve were spectacular. They couldn't play their instruments, but that just forced them to innovate. They spent years making an incredible avant-garde video -- "Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats?" -- which has never been finished (or shown altogether in one place).

Then they got better keyboards, and samplers, and maybe a sequencer or two, and they continued to do crazy stuff. Their concepts were alien and you could never quite believe in what you were hearing...what did they MEAN? Why did they DO that?

But somewhere along the line they discovered MIDI and they began to homogenize, and at the same time their concepts became less inspired. The keyboards got plinky and boring. The stories lost their focus. They put so much effort into their high-minded concepts that they somehow forgot about the MUSIC. At the same time they began to capitalize on their cult status, and by 1990 their CD packages were full of advertisements for watches and T-shirts. There's nothing worse than a cult band who runs around yelling "We're a cult band!" while their ideas and technique recede quickly into the past.

Eventually you give up and you stop buying their stuff. But you still remember what they used to be capable of...

Albums to buy: "Duck Stab" (for the "classic" sound) and "God In Three Persons" (for the "storyteller" sound). Albums to avoid: anything released after 1992. For fans only: their innovative (but kind of dull) CD ROM games, their comics, their watches, their T-shirts...


Unknown said...

I would throw on The Third Reich 'n' Roll and The Commercial Album on the good list. If you can find any of Snakefinger's solo records, they ain't bad either.

While it's true that their output has been less than consistent, I saw the live show Cube E when I was in high school and it BLEW MY TINY MIND.

Adam Thornton said...

My full "good" list would include everything prior to 1981, actually. I agree that "Third Reich 'n' Roll" and "The Commercial Album" are both genius. And yes, Snakefinger

Cube E was when I scratched my head and said "Wait...this is sort of crappy." It sounds like the stage show was fantastic, and even the recent "Road Worms" stage show looked good...but the albums? Blech!

I can't help thinking that they continue on autopilot and reputation alone.