Cherry Red continue their extraordinarily fastidious archive project for The Residents, here reaching the heady days of the 1990s but still barely scratching the surface of their ludicrously extensive output. The Residents had emerged from the 80s more than a little battered, with the financially ruinous Mole Tour and a revamped line-up of mystery musicians and miscreants leading to quite a different sound but with the expected maelstrom of ideas. This is quite something, as in itself, Freak Show might be the most linear of all The Residents’ concepts yet is so multi-layered and unexpected that it sticks out in their canon like a sore thumb.
The band naturally feel at home in amongst the sounds of the Wurlitzer, barking of carnies and groaning of fainting onlookers at the curtained side shows. The tracks are largely paeans or love letters to the deformed humans displayed for onlookers to gawp at and feel superior to, doubtless a projection of how the band themselves felt they were viewed by the wider outside world. Even on a very basic level, these top-hatted giant eyeballs were used to being a spectacle without anyone ever being allowed to delve below the surface. Certainly, the album is very divisive amongst fans. Their next few albums are, quite understandably, less revered than their earlier work, largely as the expanded media world took away a little of the mystique but more especially because their over-reliance on MIDI-synths to create their musical backdrop has aged terribly – though be assured it never sounded great.
The tinny keyboard sound does grate but by the same token, the band were clearly going to throw at least one curveball into the mix. The songs are structured in such a way that this is essentially “Freaks: The Opera” but the necessary gravity to elevate this to such a status is missing. If you were to compare this to Tom Waits‘ 1993 album, The Black Rider, it’s lyrically not far off – The Residents were rarely so obviously poetic nor as romantic, with the song “Jack the Boneless Boy”, a soliloquy from a pile of flesh who lives in a jar, is staggeringly sad:
I wish I was a cowboy or maybe just a bird
Singing simple melodies that no one ever heard
Soaring with the winter winds and bringing in the spring
Sharing air with orioles and bumblebees that sting
And making babies proud of all the bugs that I would bring
I’d sit up high above the ground and laugh as I looked down
At all the silly humans as they slowly trudged around
But as I see the end of evening turn into the night
The bird inside my brain becomes a light that is too bright
The very synthetic keyboard – all of which attempts to create an orchestra but fails miserably – adds a certain amount of unease as it’s so jarringly out of place but it’s ultimately not pleasing to the ear at all. It would be great to think that one day to project can be picked up and reassembled as there is absolutely no doubt that there is real magic hidden under the Casio beeps. What this set does give us every as much from the Freak period of the band as is sensible to present without causing indigestion.
Disc 2 features a wide array of demo jams and tracks recorded but eventually used in a different form. It makes for ‘interesting’ backing music as you work but it’s not what many fans will be hoping for, given the original release was backed with both a graphic novel and an ahead-of-its-time CD-ROM. Both these elements would doubtless have pushed up the price alarmingly and there is indeed wisdom in keeping the package as a solely musical affair. It would not be beyond the realms of imagination to see these and other visual elements released at some point in the future. Disc 3 sees the requisite live tracks, the most bootleggy recordings yet heard on these reissues though, according to the excellent sleeve-notes, not without a huge amount of work even getting them to this standard of audio. Freak Show ushered in perhaps the least rewarding period of The Resident’s recorded output but is ironically in some ways, one of the albums which continues to draw you back. It’s an album which threatens to pack an emotional punch but can’t quite bring itself to reduce itself to such base human feelings.
Buy The Residents – Freak Show here: www.cherryred.co.uk/product/the-residents-freak-show-3cd-preserved-edition/