Two musical adventures this week, one terrific, one not so. But both bands have a long history, both are still admirably active,and still work with and aspire to serious ideas.
The Residents started out as a music / performance / video / writing collective in the late sixties, and started releasing albums in 1973. Apparently, the four core founding members remain, conceptually, even if they don’t record or perform consistently together. Over the years, they’ve supplemented their work with a constantly rotating array of guest musicians, vocalists, and technicians. The core quartet, however, chooses to remain anonymous, and always perform in disguise. Their most iconic disguise is a set of giant eyeball heads, usually worn with tuxedos. In the mid-eighties, one of the eyeball masks was stolen, and, even though later recovered, was replaced with a giant black skull head. These days the band sports what the Village Voice’s Jason Gross describes: “Discarding their usual eyeball-head outfits, the band sported minstrel-like masks, bunny ears, pinpoint-light “eyes,” and sequined tuxedos—like an alien ‘Song of the South’.” Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive ‘biography’ of the band here:
But even the author of this essay admits that a great deal of his information may be apocryphal – self-promotional fictions written by the collective members under their umbrella-entity, the Cryptic Corporation.
Sonically, their music has been pretty consistent. The songs start out in the vein of standard American song – country-western classics, Elvis, show tunes, folk songs, and sixties pop. But if there’s darkness or sinister irony to be gleaned from this All-American foundation, they find and exploit it. Most of their renditions employ the sounds of cabaret, vaudeville, and carnival music performed as dissonantly and darkly as possible – the same tone often employed by artists like Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart. It’s better, though, to think of them as group compositions and arrangements rather than tied to a specific performer’s ideas. These guys were writing soundtracks to David Lynch movies years before it even occured to David Lynch to learn how to work a camera.
So the good news is – they’re still at it. They’ve created their own small but substantial aesthetic universe, and there’s a lot of abstracted subversive resonance to identify with conceptually. Their latest project, ‘The Bunny Boy’, is now touring, and stopped at the Lakeshore Theater here in Chicago for two nights. Musically, they’re still excellent, in composition, execution and uniqueness of sound.
But the bad news is – the show itself, the story told and the main character performing it, is pretty bad. Rather than just staying consistent to their larger aesthetic, they’ve created a specific narrative, with a specific character relating it, and they just don’t have the gesamtkunstwerk chops to pull this off. If I have to watch another semi-homeless, semi-psychotic hermitty reprobate character relating dark truths about The Rest Of Us, in movies, in books, on TV or on stage, it’ll be too damn soon. It seems his brother, Harvey, went to Patmos, an island in Greece, and suspiciously disappeared. Later we learn that the narrator may have follwed Harvey to Greece, but he has no recollection of it. He may have murdered Harvey in Greece, but he has no recollection of it. Is he crazy? He dunno. What do YOU think? Oh, and the narrator is obsessed with rabbits. And butchering. These kinds of Robert Bloch-isms have been done and done and done, so you’d better have something new to bring to these cliches, or don’t bother. Here, clearly, they shouldn’t have bothered.
It’s especially frustrating because the music, by itself, is really good. I heard the CD after seeing the show, and without the holler-so-the-back-row-gets-it histrionics of the lead performance, it’s wonderfully evocative and original stuff. When the story is created in your own mind, when you treat the album songs like the radio and fill in the blanks yourself, it’s far, far more effective than being locked in to the limited here’s-the-explanation through-line that they’ve unfortunately decided was a good idea.
Fellas, fellas, fellas, just get up and do the songs. Do them in a theatrically-manipulated atmosphere that reflects your generally unique and wonderful point-of-view. That’s OK, that can work. The masks are fine. The video snippets are fine. Your band kills. Just trust your ideas – don’t stuff them into a misconceived cannister of storytelling logic that reduces them to undergraduate spook-story rock-opera drivel, and depends on our acceptance of an amateurishly ‘acted’ cliche lead character / storyteller.
Better luck next time, gentlemen.
Wire began releasing recordings in 1977 – their first album, Pink Flag, is rightly cited as a watershed for the soon-to-burgeon post-punk movement. They, along with bands like Joy Division, The Fall, The Birthday Party (later Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), Killing Joke and Gang Of Four, took the minimalist aggression and back-to-basics songwriting of the punks and started insinuating bigger and smarter sociological and political ideas – it was typical to view a number of them as art-school bands. (When you think of American post-punk bands like Mission of Burma, Pere Ubu, The Raincoats, Husker Du or pre-‘Remain In Light’ Talking Heads, the ‘art-school’ tag doesn’t seem so pejorative). From simple, guitar-based short songs, Wire expanded through the eighties, adding keyboards, sampling, layered vocals and an array of studio effects to create the huge sound evinced on songs like ‘Ahead’, ‘Eardrum Buzz’, ‘In Vivo’ and ‘Madman’s Honey’. Recently, they’ve pared back to a more guitar-centric sound, but their recordings are still studio-heavy compositions, laden with layered tracking, processed sound and compression.
I feared that big chunks of their show at Chicago’s Metro would be performed by the sound board. But they, relievedly, eschewed the studio versions of the songs and just played them as a plain old Band With Guitars, unadorned. So the first great revelation was that the songs are really That Good, really held up in these very different, minimalized arrangements. The early stuff held up effortlessly, but the eighties songs like ‘Silk Skin Paws’ and, especially, ‘Advantage In Height’ were exceptional as well. The new material, especially the more aggresively abrasive work on 2003’s ‘Send’, took on a bigger, more expansive flavor. Which was the second great revelation – for all of the teeth-grinding tension their overcompressed studio work can have, in concert they Trusted Their Guitars, strumming, crunching and echoing wonderful slabs and waves of chordal and harmonic noise that perfectly enhanced the fat ideas behind their deceptively basic songs.
I especially want to single out the guitar work of Margaret Fiedler McGinnis, standing in for longtime member Bruce Gilbert, who, the scuttlebutt reports, has had enough of touring, and is reducing his workload with the band. If one of the two guitarists was most responsible for the aforementioned slabs and waves (the other being co-founder Colin Newman, singer and songwriter as well), it was her. She sounded great. I suspected a little homework would reveal a history of smaller British bands and gigs leading up to this deserved step up for her (she’s also played with P.J. Harvey), and it does. The surprise is that she was born and raised right here in Winnetka, Il. She’s a credit to rock-and-roll expatriates everywhere.
They’re a great band, and have been for a while. I can recommend the first three albums (‘Pink Flag’, ‘Chairs Missing’ and ‘154’), a compilation of their 80’s work called ‘The A List’, and two of their most recent albums, ‘Send’ and the new one, ‘Object 47’.