❉ This is one of the Residents’ most accessible albums in years.
Everything about The Residents is shrouded in mystery. As a band they’ve carefully created their own mythology for over 50 years. Yet, of all their constructions this might be the most extraordinary yet.
There’s a carefully constructed backstory here surrounding a collection of demos made by a blues singer by the name of Alvin Snow aka Dyin’ Dog who encountered a longtime friend of the band in 1975, loudly singing one of his songs on the street. A band was formed to flesh out his usual singing style and collection of demo tracks were recorded for local Louisiana record label Jewel Records. Then, the night before a gig was scheduled and following a series of tragic events, Snow disappeared; never to be seen again.
The two disc set presents The Residents own versions of the songs on the first disc, plus six additional songs “inspired by” Alvin Snow’s songs. Disc two is the original demos, recorded back in 1975 of Alvin and the band assembled to bring his music to life. The contrast between the two discs gives a fascinating insight into what one can do with a song. IF one doesn’t buy into the myth of Dyin’ Dog, it also provides an insightful look into the roots of The Residents, their music itself and how its journey from bare bones to the final pieces takes place. Whichever way you view it, this is a fascinating concept. It’s also completely in keeping with recent projects by the band in that some of the subject matter is about as dark as you can get.
The first disc is The Residents’ own “interpretations” of the songs. Those familiar with recent releases will find the feel and mood hasn’t changed a great deal. Hungry Hound could easily have fitted comfortably on the likes of 2005’s Animal Lover or the death fixated Ghosts Of Hope (had it included an ancient railway accident reference). The standout here is Die Die Die which features Frank Black sounding more vocally unhinged than he has in a longtime. It is quite a performance and has taken on new resonance thanks to the delay in release (the album was originally slated for release in early February) which allowed The Residents to produce a Covid themed attack on Donald Trump in video form to trail the album.
What strikes most here is the brevity of the songs. As this is taken from demos its more song form than some of their recent albums. There’s nothing breaching the five-minute mark and it feels a lot more like a conventional alternative rock album as nothing outstays its welcome. There’s more vocal variety thanks to guest vocals on the likes River Runs Dry and Tell Me. The overall feel of the album reminds more of the kind of records they were making back in 70’s. It’s easily one of the most accessible things they’ve made in a while, although still unmistakably a record by The Residents. Their take on Pass For White does, minus the guitar lines, feel like it could have appeared on a Depeche Mode album.
The full album is fleshed out with six songs “inspired by Dyin’ Dog”. Like many of their records, these songs follow their conceptual feel. They complement the material well although they’re the stranger end of the material. Cold As A Corpse is lounge jazz put through a Residents filter. The other highlight is Evil Hides which is apocalyptic but with a light musical touch.
Putting the songs in the context of their “original” form is interesting. The Original Dyin’ Dog Demos illustrate a musician who clearly owes a lot the vocals of Howlin’ Wolf and the old delta blues but there’s something of the 70’s here – much in keeping with the era these songs were recorded. The first five songs are most effective and evocative. They sound like a bunch of 70’s session guys backing a man with a voice of two singers whose style owed much to Howlin’ Wolf; Tom Waits and Don Van Vleet of Captain Beefheart. The versions of both Hungry Hound and River Runs Dry would not have sounded out of place on Beefheart’s Safe As Milk. It has to be said, that the further you go through the demos the more the mask starts to slip. The second half of the second disc really does sound more familiar as Residents material. I Know bears all the vocal hallmarks of lead singer, Skullface, whilst Pass For White feels oddly contemporary. Alongside, Tell Me the album moves away from the gothic into an exploration of identity – echoing the backstory of Dyin’ Dog’s mixed heritage.
The whole package has been very carefully created with the CDs housed in a booklet which tells the story of “the discovery” of the tapes. Additionally the originals were licensed to a German record company and released as a limited edition boxed set of seven inch singles and there’s an online video interview with Roland Sheehan who discovered the original demos with claims they were originally pressed by a reputable local Louisiana blues label. Critics who dismiss the band as bunch of wacky ex-hippie pranksters really don’t appreciate how much thought they put into their work. This, like so many products of The Residents, is put together with a tremendous amount of care and thought.
As music history has developed there’s become a growing fascination many record collectors have in digging up forgotten musicians and record labels have grown up releasing these “lost masters”. Metal Meat & Bone cleverly taps into this and also provides The Residents with the opportunity to play around with source material. In doing so they have, consciously or unconsciously I couldn’t say, provided a fascinating opportunity to examine their creative process and also delve into some of things which may well have inspired them to make music in the first place. After all, they’ve never made a blues record before. It’s another clever conceptual addition to their catalogue and one of their most accessible albums in years. After 50 years, this proves there’s no dyin’ but plenty of life in this old dog yet.
❉ The Residents – ‘It’s Metal, Meat & Bone: The Songs Of Dyin’ Dog’ released July 10, 2020 on Cryptic/Cherry Red Records. Available as a deluxe CD or limited edition vinyl edition, RRP £17.99 – £22.99: Order directly from Cherry Red Records HERE.
❉ The Residents will be touring their new ‘Dog Stab’ show, including the songs of Dyin’ Dog, across the world in early 2021. See residents.com for details!
❉ Peter Robinson is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.