Forty years and we still don’t know who they are. Yay.
The Residents Present The Delta Nudes
In today’s information glut, where over-sharing is an official thing, one wonders where the notion of mystery has gone. The musical group that has always welcomed mystery—possibly more than any other—is The Residents, which has been called “The world’s most famous unknown band.”
Some may recognize the top-hat-wearing eyeball icon of the band, but few outside the musical underground would recognize the group’s music. Few groups have been so art-minded as The Residents, being pioneers of the music video format and multi-media performances and software, and adopting certain guiding principles, including, most importantly, N. Senada’s “Theory of Obscurity,” which says that pure art is created by eliminating outside influences.
As an extension of this, in order to separate itself from the normal, social world, the band has remained anonymous for its entire 40-plus year career—which, naturally and ironically, has only stoked fans’ speculation about the members’ identities.
Yes, obsessive fans like this writer can’t simply “accept the mystery,” to quote from the film A Serious Man, and want to know how this highly eccentric music evolved. The accepted starting point for The Residents is the 1972 double-single Santa Dog, which began an incredible decade-long run of ardently strange concept albums and EPs with unfamiliar sonic palettes.
From the ’80s onward, when the group discovered MIDI keyboards, fans weren’t so unanimous in their praise, with big concepts and multi-media projects often overshadowing the music itself. The new collection Greatest Hiss (so named for the sometimes low fidelity of the recordings) billed under the pre-Residents moniker “The Delta Nudes,” focuses on the collective’s origins, culling material from unreleased albums and rarities recorded in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
It goes beyond ’60s counterculture and into the truly disturbing, with a brash, raw sound and some flat-out crazy moments, with cartoon-character voices and arrangements seemingly designed to provide discomfort. One comparison for this music might be the kindred weirdos The Godz, with primitive guitar strums and a semi-hippie-cult feeling at times.
“Aircraft Damage,” taken from the aforementioned Santa Dog, is a slice of disorienting lunacy, with barking dogs, marching band drums, and enthusiastic people imploring you to “kick a cat today!” The Residents’ lead singer is recognizable, with his unmistakable Southern accent, and clearly, the outfit is taking potshots at traditional folk and gospel origins with tracks like “I Hear Ya Got Religion,” featuring sax bleats in no particular key and frantic picking.
Covers include a sped-up version of Frank Zappa’s “King Kong,” with dexterous guitar work, and a scalding take on Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” with infantile violin playing. The live track “Party of ‘71” includes a version of “Eloise” (from the Vileness Fats video saga) with an unsettling recitation over atonal disorder in the background, but the compilation’s masterpiece is the lengthy “Hallowed Be Thy Ween,” which is whimsical and nightmarish, constantly transforming itself with noises and unnatural voices.
Maxine / CB Suite
For a band such as The Residents with a fruitful and strange 40-plus year career, it is currently a particularly fruitful and strange time that seems simultaneously exhilarating and foreboding.
In recent years, The Residents celebrated its 40th anniversary with the “Wonder of Weird” performance series and put up for sale a $100,000 boxed set with rare Residents artifacts enclosed in an actual refrigerator. The key members are likely in their 60s today, and most notably, they have recently been putting out releases at a mind-boggling rate, making it the most prolific period of the band’s entire history.
It almost feels like the group is sensing its end and wants to make a glorious, mad dash to the finish line, doing more than ever as a sort of artistic bucket list. Another notable thing is that the members are now identified by individual names: Randy, Chuck and Bob. These, of course, are invented names, but it’s an unusual step for a group that has always guarded its anonymity.
The latest offering in the Residents’ realm is the double-CD Maxine / CB Suite released under the name “Charles Bobuck,” who is assumed to be the main composer for The Residents (Randy is assumed to be the lyricist and lead singer.) Having been disappointed with The Residents’ recorded output of the last decade, this release actually took this writer by surprise for being more enjoyable than expected.
The release consists of two regular length tracks (“Go Home” and “Jambalaya”) and two album-length tracks: “Maxine,” which was used as walk-in music for the Demons Dance Alone performances, and “CB Suite,” composed of instrumental tidbits from the Coochie Brake recording sessions.
“Maxine” is a collage with many genres stitched together, not sounding like classic Residents; there’s everything from soul to Indian music in the mix, with space sounds, hums and drum loops that are frankly a bit distracting and occasionally annoying. The Residents had been moving away from N. Senada’s “Theory of Phonetic Organization” in the last two and a half decades; the theory says that sounds come first, and you build music up from the sounds instead of starting with a song structure and then working your way down to the individual sounds. However, in an alternate way, “Maxine” might be considered a return to this philosophy, by taking snippets and detritus and then assembling collages from the given materials.
“CB Suite” is engrossing, with tribal exotica drums, insect sounds, disembodied voices and many other elements that weave in and out, building a satisfying maelstrom with good morsels along the way; this writer would have left out some of the more generic-sounding drumbeats, but overall, the piece works. And if you’ve always wanted to hear an ambient techno version of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” with robot vocals, here it is.
Without a strict theme and narrative, this album is an oddly refreshing one for the Residents collective, and for the first time in years, this writer is compelled to check out more of the Residents’ current output. How long will they keep this up? It’s a mystery, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.