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for December 2, 2004

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Review: The Residents' Commercial Album DVD
by Sean Carolan

Artist: The Residents
Title: The Residents' Commercial Album DVD
Label: Cryptic Corporation/Mute Records
My viewing of this disc was a relief, in context.
I've recently dug out the old Betamax and some video tapes I recorded twenty years ago. Among them was MTV's broadcast of Live Aid, and a bit of Night Flight's fifth anniversary show.
First revelation: Betamax players were built for the ages. I've got VHS tapes from five years ago that look worse.
Second revelation: Cable TV back then was weird. Not necessarily subversive in the specific sense; just weird all around. Back then, I thought a lot of what I saw on Night Flight was high art (and much of it was.) What I find on reviewing tapes from that era is that everything was weird - even the commercials for the Record-A-Call 3000.
The eighties were weird. But we knew that.
In the middle of all that weird sat The Residents. You'd see their top-hatted eyeball heads poking out of the odd issue of Rolling Stone, or showing up on Night Flight or early-to-mid eighties MTV. The film they made with Henry Selick, The Adventures of Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions, put Selick on the path that eventually saw him direct classics like "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James And The Giant Peach". Since then, in addition to The Residents' aborted epics and live shows, they've scored series for the Discovery Channel. They also always seemed, to me anyway, more a part of the playing field than actual players.
And, as they've always been anonymous, we're assuming that "they" is the proper word.
The centerpiece of their weirdness is arguably "The Residents' Commercial Album". Forty one-minute songs, making the statement that a minute of content was about all there was to commercial music, thus making all music, essentially, nothing more than commercials.
Twenty-odd years on, the commercials are complete...with more vigor than expected, since the forty songs have become fifty-six videos. (Yes, there are duplicates, even among the songs that have never had videos made before.)
It's engaging viewing. Not necessarily the DVD's maze interface, mind you, though it makes it more likely you'll respond to an intriguing still from the video than choosing from the track list. But pulling random bits from the track list, or even sampling the thematic playlists they've put together, is a satisfying (if occasionally satisfyingly alarming or satisfyingly nauseating) experience. Be ready for sudden depravities that strike without warning; the disc is chock full of 'em. (Bless their lil' black hearts.)
There are a couple of revelations - it never occurred to me that, aside from expected contributor and then-Ralph Records labelmate Snakefinger, the record also featured Andy Partridge and Lene Lovich, the latter being very prominent on "Picnic Boy". It's also nice to see new video work from John Sanborn, a video pioneer from the old Night Flight days; fast work with a freeze-frame button will bring you rewards during his entry for "Dimples And Toes".
Of course, calling The Residents "weird" misses the point. The kind of weird they espouse is the all-American kind that hasn't really been represented in the media since "Night Flight" went off the air.
What's really weird is that it's been missing all this time. With the caveat that you'd better know what you're getting into, we recommend you pick up a copy of this disc and welcome it back.

©2004 Sean Carolan

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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