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Reissue CDs Weekly: The Residents | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Residents

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Residents

'80 Aching Orphans': the ultimate entry point into the eyeball-headed musical nonconformists

The Residents celebrate their 30th anniversary in 2002The Cryptic Corporation

80 Aching Orphans ought to be hard work. A four-CD, 80-track, 274-minute overview chronicling 45 years of one of pop’s most wilful bands should be a challenging listen. The Residents have never made records which are straightforward or were meant to be, and have never made records conforming to prevailing trends.

Sometimes, they’ve chimed with the ethos of passing zeitgeists like punk but, when that’s happened, it’s been about the times themselves rather than anything intrinsic to The Residents.

However, with its flow and internal harmoniousness the casebound box set 80 Aching Orphans confounds expectations. So much so, it’s turned out to be the ultimate statement on the eyeball-headed musical nonconformists. While the actual identity of The Residents is not revealed in the liner notes, it was deftly compiled by the band and the droll track-by-track commentary is credited to them. A short introduction – written in a first-person style very similar to the rest of the text – is by Homer Flynn of The Cryptic Corporation, the organisation which handles The Residents' business affairs. Listeners can draw their own conclusion as to how much further Flynn’s degree of involvement extends.

The Residents 80 Aching OrphansNone of the discs are compiled chronologically. The earliest track is “Fire”, from 1972’s double-single set Santa Dog. The most recent is “Shroud of Flames” from this year’s The Ghost of Hope album. Collectors and long-term fans will be attracted by a smattering of rarities and previously unheard versions: a 1988 live take of Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love”, “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” from a limited 1986 single, a 2003 live take of “Mr Wonderful”. But these are bait rather than the main course. It is the box set as career résumé which matters here.

As 80 Aching Orphans plays out, themes emerge: The Residents’ constant subversion of popular music through recording (usually artfully mangled) cover versions of old chestnuts; their repeated efforts to grapple with the nature of America (a twisted Americana); a need to frame their music with concepts; the continual energy poured into maintaining and developing their corporate identity; that they love re-recording and reconfiguring their own catalogue – they are their own biggest fans (which 80 Aching Orphans further demonstrates); that they have always embraced evolving musical technology (they were early adopters of sampling keyboards – the same applies to their attitude towards digital visual media); that they are serial collaborators (Todd Rundgren crops on 80 Aching Orphans). But whatever the agendas at play, they always sound exactly like The Residents.

Parallels with the Faust of 'The Faust Tapes' were probably coincidental

Trademarks include a strangled vocal, fidgety yet insistent rhythms, wandering guitar lines and a slurring approach to melody – as if the tunes themselves were melting. Throughout, their key musical influences appear to be Frank Zappa when he was fusing rock with the modern classical (his absurdist film 200 Motels is highly Residential), Smile-era Beach Boys (especially the track “Fire”), be-bop and a clutch of the peculiar bands peppering the ESP label’s catalogue in the late Sixties such as The Godz and (especially) Cromagnon. Parallels with the Faust of The Faust Tapes were probably coincidental.

Compiling 80 Aching Orphans must have been a nightmare. Although hits like “Constantinople”, “Jello Jack the Boneless Boy” and “Satisfaction” had to appear, there is an awful lot of raw material to choose from. The distillation of 45 years draws on around 60 studio albums, at least 20 live albums, 30-ish singles and who knows how many off-piste appearances. The waters are further muddied by sundry previous comps, most notably the two 1986 Rykodisc collections Heaven and Hell (reissued by The Residents themselves five years ago as a single package).

Nonetheless, by combining – no matter how eccentric the songs – listenability with sharp design and packaging, this is the best Residents’ collection to date. Dive in.

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