❉ With a wealth of extra material, Cherry Red give new life to a previously undervalued Residents album.
“Originally released in 1995 as an at-the-time cutting edge CD-ROM (now prehistoric and forgotten), Gingerbread Man is a good, old-fashioned concept album, but one crafted with a precision which other concept albums could only dream of… It wasn’t beloved by critics, perhaps because the tone tends to the dark side, with suicide, depression and anxiety to the fore, and the overall feel is one of disorientation and loss. But there’s humour there, too…”
Someone once said of The Residents that they were ‘sloppy implementers of heroic ideas’, which was, I suppose, meant to be witty (if I remember right, the writer compared them in this respect with Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, who he considered clinically precise geniuses who were only pretending to be footloose and fancy free, which is a bit more accurate at least). It is quite a nice phrase, I grant you, but it’s so far from the truth that he’d have needed a telescope to see the truth from wherever he was writing.
Take Gingerbread Man as a case in point. Originally recorded in 1994, and released as an at-the-time cutting edge CD-ROM (time having passed to such an extent that what was cutting edge is now prehistoric and forgotten, this is perhaps a good point now to explain that a CD-ROM was a music CD you could pop in your computer to access additional material. Also, the CD-ROM content is not included in this reissue, for obvious reasons of compatibility), Gingerbread Man is a good, old-fashioned concept album, but one crafted with a precision which other concept albums could only dream of.
In brief, the album is ‘narrated’ by of nine distinct characters, utilising the repetitive nature of the source Gingerbread Man nursery rhyme, and each using as its base the most famous refrain from that folk tale (Run, run, as fast as you can / You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man). Within each individual track, this repetition is taken to another level, as every song begins with a version of the Gingerbread Man refrain, followed by some singing by the character in question, then the spoken thoughts of the character, allowing the listener a glimpse into their subconscious. It’s a little reminiscent of David Bowie’s 1.Outside project, but pushing that set of character portraits to new extremes.
Sloppy, it ain’t.
It wasn’t always beloved by critics when it came out, though, perhaps because, tonally, the nine narratives tend to the dark side, with suicide, depression and anxiety to the fore, and the overall feel is one of disorientation and loss. But there’s humour there, too, if only black humour – stand-out track The Aging Musician contains both the joyous sound of Todd Rundgren bemoaning the fact that he’s no longer popular and recognising that the only way he’d get on MTV would be to put a bullet in his brain ‘like Kurt Cobain’, and the lyric also includes the MIDI electronic music embracing Residents saying that what he needs to do is ‘Play real music, none of this computer crap’.
As well as Rundgren and long-time Residents collaborators Diana Alden and Laurie Amat, the album is most notable for Residents’ fans for marking the first appearance of Molly Harvey, who would go onto be effectively the one Resident everyone can name from this record on.
All four vocalists contribute hugely to making sure that the album never becomes dull (always a risk in a record which is based so hugely on repetition and mirroring). Harvey’s Old Woman (contemplating suicide but wondering ‘who will take care of my plants?’) is a particular highlight, managing, as the best songs on the album do, to combine glimpses of bleak humanity with the sort of humorous – and true – little detail which prevents everything turning totally grim.
As this is a Cherry Red release, there’s a wealth of extra material too. As well as live versions of the album on the first disc, there are two additional CDs, the first containing The Fat Boy Tape, a huge amount of material from the Residents’ cutting room floor – snippets and cut-offs from the Gingerbread Man sessions which, as you would expect, vary in quality and length, but which are all fascinating listening for fans (plus a 30 minute plus instrumental version of the whole album which, I can say from experience, is brilliant music for driving to).
The second disc is the more essential of the two, however, with both the complete Hunters soundtrack which the band did for a 1994 nature documentary, plus the four track Prelude To ‘The Teds’ EP which though it’s been released a couple of times before, is not the easiest Residents’ release to get hold of, and so makes a very welcome addition to the set. One thing I love about these releases is the way they feel like the guys at Cherry Red are determined to cram as much music on as possible, like someone making you a mix tape back in the day and squeezing a really short song on the end to use up the whole C90!
The pREServed series of Residents releases has been a triumph so far, but in excavating and giving new life to a release which was undervalued at the time, Cherry Red have done Residents fans a great service.
❉ The Residents: ‘Gingerbread Man’ 3CD pREServed Edition (Physical Records NRT017) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £12.99. Also available as Limited Edition Vinyl LP while stocks last, RRP £17.99.
❉ Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas