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The Residents: Strange Music from Earth

Without doubt, the Residents occupy a singular place in musical history. Besides being one of the most eclectic bands around, their music literally defies description—as does the identity of the band members.

No one knows who the Residents are. When the band tours, they appear dressed in costume, their most familiar masks being eyeball head-dress that gives the audience no glimpse of race, sex or creed.

Steeped in cryptic rumor and esoteric achievements, the music created by the Residents is often an examination of earthly cultures as perceived by an outsider. The band's "Eskimo" release stands as a milestone fusion of modern music and Eskimo folklore. Their "American Composers" series of releases have warped the tunes of James Brown, George Gershwin, Elvis Presley, John Philip Sousa, and Hank Williams into melodies that simultaneously confuse and amuse the listener.

Unless you are privy to extraterrestrial records of interstellar observation, or you are able to step outside the social and organic realms of your own species, the music of the Residents could be your only opportunity to glimpse how strange and wonderful humanity actually is.

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THE RESIDENTS: Wormwood (CD on East Side Digital)

In 1998, the Residents chose to lend their quirky musical sensibilities to interpret a selection of curious stories from the Bible; 20 such tales in 64 minutes.

The instrumentation employed by the Residents tends to be of an electronic nature: keyboards, sampled instruments and sounds, and synthetic percussives. The band's style of sound often melds a carnival-like quality with an earth-shattering epic sense of structure. The keyboards possess a dense timbre, chords billowing with dramatic effect, resounding with the ring of a traditional piano. When not manifesting as classical drumming, the E-perc can be insectoid, trembling with compelling tribal properties.

One of the Residents' most distinctive signatures is their vocals. Playful vocals harmonize and sway with sustained notes. Frequently, though, the crooning voices can be hoarse, reaching deeply emotional crescendos, as if the vocalist were herniating over every syllable. (There are also guest female singers who give the lyrics a sensual edge.)

Pinning down the overall tone of this music can be difficult, for it explores a full gamut from somber classical to frolicsome circus airs to impulsive rock.

It should be pointed out that some people may find these songs disturbing for the cruelty and sexuality depicted in them. Blaming the Residents for the content of these stories is an absurdity, for each tale can be found in the Bible (a book that everyone will acknowledge was written long before the births of the band members).

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THE RESIDENTS: Roadworms (CD on East Side Digital)

With only two weeks to go until the conclusion of the Residents' "Wormwood" tour in the summer of 1999, the band took refuge in a Berlin studio with the intention of recording more controlled versions of their concert arrangements. This 52 minute CD is the result of that session.

From the alley-tribal quality of the band's "Un-American Band" (yes, a Residential cover of the Grand Funk Railroad song), this music swings into a sparser sound for the "Wormwood" tracks. Here, guitar takes control of the front, backed with non-synthesized drums. The keyboards lack elaborate electronics, restraining riffs to simpler delivery and scope. Even the vocals (supplied by Mr. Skull and Molly Harvey) are more direct, with hoarse loyalty to the zealous original versions.

As the tracks progress, the instruments assert more command, breaking out of a garage sound and growling with rock'n'roll liberation. Treatments creep into the vocals as the guitar surges and wails. The keyboards adopt lusher attributes, but remain more in the background than normal for the Residents.

These characteristics reach a pinnacle with the finale ("Judas Saves"). Searing seesaw guitar lashes out from a wall of heavenly droning keyboards and softly subtle drumming. The vocals whine and wheeze, pleading for release and penance. Electronic enhancements begin to overtake the performance, warping the instruments with plaintive resonance. Sliding into epic hallelujah chants, the piece peaks with reverent passion and a crashing guitar solo.

Wholly a different take from the original album, these versions explode with a raw distinction that proves thoroughly exhausting and candidly enthralling.

A double CD release exists of the "Wormwood Live" material on Ralph America) Ralph America Records for those who desire to experience the actual 1999 European tour in all of its vibrant weirdness.

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THE RESIDENTS: (CD on Ralph America)

For the last few years, the Residents have featured a series of MP3 files on Ralph America's Website. With the exception of one track, all of the 13 tracks on this 58 minute CD originated there.

This collection examines a wide range of the Residents' music and the deviant sonic experimentation employed by the mysterious band in their pursuit of investigating human cultures. From orchestral interpretations to live performances to gamelan renditions to soundtrack music for nature shows on the Discover channel to oddball cover tunes (such as Prince's "1999" and the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black"), these tunes display the Residents' individual sound with digital clarity. Their busy melodies and diverse vocal qualities transform earthly music into wild sonic excursions that resound far beyond our dimension.

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THE RESIDENTS: Diskomo 2000 (CD EP on East Side Digital)

Upon cursory dissection, this 33 minute CD EP appears to be a reissue of the band's classic "Diskomo" extended-play single from 1980. But closer examination reveals the addition of a 1992 live version of the title track (previously only available on a rare flexi-disc) and two new ("2000") tracks.

The notion of fusing Eskimo folklore with disco music is certainly one of the most diverse combinations you will ever encounter. (The wholeness of this sonic gem can be found on the Residents' "Eskimo" CD, remastered and available on East Side Digital.)

In its original version, "Diskomo" is altogether a toy-like sonic experience, complete with vocals treated to a point far beyond munchkinism. There are even geisha riffs blended into the arctic melody, all spiraling around a definitive disco rhythm machine. (This version also features the squealing guitar of the late Snakefinger.)

The 1992 live version takes a lazier look at the melody, transforming it into something akin to a song from Brian Eno's "Before and After Science".

While "Diskomo 2000" imbues the tune with a severely modern aura, taking the repertoire of sounds into quite jazzier territory with sinuous techno overtones.

"Goosebump" constitutes four songs that explore children's nursery rhymes with the Residents' cryptic style, firmly immersed in toy-piano and pulsating E-perc. "Twinkle 2000" moves this bedtime classic into a cafe refinement of remarkable maturity.

For a deeper view of the strangeness of the Residents, you are advised to experience their mysterious and endlessly entertaining website.

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