Subtle as an amputation, the Residents cut themselves off from pop music's tumorous body three decades ago and never looked back. Still as prolific as they are self-indulgent, the one-eyed malcontents — led by Mr. Skull — remain cloaked in deliberate secrecy. While the high-concept efforts of the “World's Most Famous Unknown Band” do get more accessible and melodic with each passing year, the group's recent output — both original and rehashed — could hardly be considered, well, normal.
Sweet-sounding, vulnerable, and uncertain, Demons Dance Alone follows the adventures of a ladies' man named Tongue, whose taste organ's so big he can wash his ears with it. Tongue trolls for quickies, gets his car torched, and eats more than he can swallow — all within the first three songs. By the time a sob story called “Neediness” rolls around (it's sung by a Barney sound-alike with a Southern twang), Tongue has entered a profound state of denial, succumbed to additional beaver fever, and found a girl with more steak than sizzle. Honey-flavored harmonies, trademark synthesizers, and vocal vocoders enhance this singsongy cautionary cycle; at 28 tracks, it's music purely for the sake of music, constructed with a gleeful sense of purpose.
Equally bewildering, The Residents' Petting Zoo is a career retrospective that celebrates the band's dark and special otherness by repackaging old tunes from its back catalog. The CD may be perfect one-stop shopping for novices, but it'll feel like more of the same for Residents hunters and collectors. The album highlights tracks from Demons Dance Alone on down to 1974's Smelly Tongues, taking a quick but scenic route through 13 of the group's 34 albums to date, including 1994's frolicsome The Gingerbread Man, 1990's unnerving Freakshow, and 1978's pseudo-worldly Duck Stab. The Residents' American Composer series — in which James Brown and John Philip Sousa get the stink-eye treatment — is glaringly absent from the collection, as is any music scored for five episodes of Pee-wee's Playhouse. And for all of the curious factoids that accompany the package (e.g., Marlboro actually commissioned the band for a performance in Germany, provided Mr. Skull remove himself from the stage), the Rez seem more committed to marketing than music. In the liner notes, the members gloat about producing what's arguably the world's first-ever punk single, “Satisfaction” (a tune that predates the Sex Pistols' “God Save the Queen” by a full year), then take the chintzy way out by deeming it “not suitable” for inclusion here. Bastards.
Still worthwhile in a convenient mix-tape kind of way, Zoo finds the busy little worker bees pushing buttons they've already pushed, reminding one and all that the monster under our bed is not only alive — it's snickering up its sleeve.