❉ This is the most sonically adventurous The Residents have sounded in years, writes Chris Browning.
“Part of the appeal of the Residents has always been their ability to weave their older projects into existing ones. They’re one of the first postmodern bands in that way… There’s always been a level of decoding of their stuff to fully appreciate their work, part of the joy of being deliberately a band whose identity is intended to be irrelevant. And this record is rich with those allusions.”
John Peel’s now infamous cliche about the Fall (always different, always the same) applies to so many bands. There’s a sense that some musicians find a particularly sonic world that works, and then delight in mining that for the rest of their careers, just finding new and interesting ways to mould those sounds. Bands like the Wedding Present, Clinic, the Ramones, Guided by Voices… always different, always the same.
There’s an argument to be had that the Residents do this too. For over fifty years, they have produced rigorously odd and eccentric records that have touched on opera, blues, industrial, ambient, folk music and so much more but always, inevitably, they sound like the Residents. But that’s also not really quite correct, because part of the reason why the Residents always sound like the Residents is because of The Mysterious N Senada. Ostensibly a Bavarian composer and music theorist, N Senada’s main contribution to the lore of the Residents is his “Theory of Obscurity”. The Theory of Obscurity states that an artist can only produce pure art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration. It doesn’t matter who they are, the music is all that matters. Unlike fellow anonymous outsider musician Jandek, whose records are essentially just instalments of one peculiar vision that just flow into each other, the Residents have spent their entire career playing with the themes of identity.
Senada is almost certainly an invention of the Residents themselves, but the Theory of Obscurity has allowed them to devote their career use their identity (or lack of it) as a central part of their mythos. It allows them to reinvent themselves completely several times over for a start. But there have been many theories as to who the Residents could be under their eyeball masks , with particular interest subjected to the members of the Cryptic Corporation who have always steadfastly promoted and represented the band and their music, but it wasn’t until 2018 when we finally got our first confirmed identity. Hardy Fox identified himself as the primary composer for the Residents in 2017, having retired in 2015 (and dying soon after of brain cancer in 2018). Since this sad death, the Residents have been in what approximates to a reflective mood. The Cherry Red pREServed Editions have restored their greatest works with pristine sound, whilst also presenting us with bonus material that contextualises those records, and providing sleeve notes that are almost revealing. And because of this reflective mode, we inevitably come to Vileness Fats and from there – finally – to Triple Trouble.
Vileness Fats was the Residents’ attempt at film making, a homemade and deeply experimental film in the vein of Eraserhead or Forbidden Zone. If you’re aware of the latter, a deeply weird rock musical starring the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo and a hilariously unhinged Hervé Villechaize, that’s sort of the territory Vileness Fats would have occupied had it ever been finished. Instead it physically, mentally and spiritually overtook the band for several years in the seventies before they gave up one it. At one point they lived in the actual set, which dominated several videos the band made during the period. There have been several attempts to release the film, and bits of it have trickled out over the years, but it has always felt like the great lost work of the band.
Well finally it has another lease of life. Triple Trouble started production as Double Trouble back in the pre-Covid days of 2016, but the virus and the death of longstanding collaborator and lead actress Gerri Lawlor meant the original film could not be completed. But, as if determined to break the curse of the Residents and their film projects, this was reconfigured – with choice elements of the long unfinished Vileness Fats – into the current and very much finished project Triple Trouble. Of which this is the soundtrack. Which I am finally about to review.
On one level this is a hard record to talk about because so much of it is clearly a sound companion to a film I haven’t seen. And as much as I have read the synopsis of the plot, as anyone who even knows the tiniest thing about the Residents will know, that’s not necessarily very helpful to understanding what the film is like. Loosely described it’s the story of Randall “Junior” Rose, son of a recently deceased rock star Randy Rose (a key figure in recent Residents mythology), a priest who has lost his faith, who is convinced a fungus is about to destroy humanity (it’s not particularly hard to see the connections to Covid here). This record is ostensibly the soundtrack but more correctly feels like an audio companion: part drama, part conspiracy in and of itself and dense with meaning and references.
Part of the appeal of the Residents has always been their ability to weave their older projects into existing ones. They’re one of the first postmodern bands in that way. Possibly their most accessible record is Eskimo, which they joyously retooled as the self explanatory DIskomo. They spent much of the late seventies deconstructing classic rock to the point of absurdity (their version of Satisfaction is one of the all time greats, and makes Devo’s contemporaneous deconstruction seem like a sell-out pop record). There’s always been a level of decoding of their stuff to fully appreciate their work, part of the joy of being deliberately a band whose identity is intended to be irrelevant. And this record is rich with those allusions.
My favourite Residents’ album, and certainly the only one to make me cry, is Not Available, an opera of sorts which exists to try and work through various tensions within the band through the medium of music. They almost never released it because it was seen as too personally revealing, but their oblique way of trying to work through direct inter-band issues is for me tremendously moving. And I think it’s particularly fascinating that the only album sleeve in the album art here is for that record. It’s kind of a sign that the band want you to think about the context of that album in relation to this record.
As such themes from recent albums – Randy Rose in particular, but also musical motifs and soundscapes (Let Caution Be Your Cry starts with the same sort of icy soundscapes that Eskimo revels in) – sort of shimmy in and out of the record. But crucially they never end up overwhelming the record – they’re little hidden treats that long standing fans can suddenly identify and add to the richness of the record.
One of the major criticisms of the late eighties and onwards Residents’ records is their heavy reliance on midi recording. There’s a sort of overly synthetic tinnyness to some of it compared to the multi-layered murk of the seventies records. Partly this was down to the fact the Residents were not necessarily a very commercial band (despite having a record called The Commercial Album), so a lot of the music was recorded with one giant eyeball on ease of playing it live. But it’s a huge pleasure to say that even as someone who kind of likes the midi era, this sounds more sonically adventurous than they have done in years. Partly this is down to presence of Eric Drew Feldman, unusually credited by name on the sleeve (usually the theory of anonymity precludes this but like I said, things are changing in the world of the Residents), who has worked with Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu, Pixies, PJ Harvey and many more sonically adventurous types. And he’s on fine, fine form here helping mould the music into strange shapes and adding a sonic depth to the records.
Part of the problem with reviewing records is that you essentially have to do two things – give a rough indicator of what the record sounds like and then provide reasons why that might appeal to listeners. And while it’s true that I can’t really describe what this record sounds like without comparing it to their other work, this is one of the most outward looking and intriguing records they’ve recorded in an age. And the great irony is that they choose to do that with a record that’s loaded with a long and complex history. Although that pesky Theory of Obscurity should tell you not to, you can’t help but think that we’re slowly seeing the end of the first iteration of the Residents. Mortality has circled them within the last decade and there’s a definite sense of a group tying up loose ends. This is no bad thing, especially when the record that results from this is this forward looking. This does not in any way sound like a fifty year old band. It sounds like a band who still have more ideas than they know what to do with. And I eagerly look forward to what comes next.
❉ The Residents: “Triple Trouble – Original Soundtrack” (Cherry Red Group CDBRED862) was released in hardback book format on 18 November 2022, RRP £11.49. ‘Triple Trouble: The Movie’ premiered at the 29th Chicago Underground Film Festival and is appearing at film festivals and selected cinemas throughout 2023.
❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.