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Arts and Entertainment

The Residents @ Henry Fonda Music Box 01/30/10

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“Hi folks, I’m Randy - the lead singer of the Residents! Over here is Chuck, and that’s Bob over there on the guitar.”

Well what do you know? The world’s most famous anonymous musicians have just outed themselves on stage at the Music Box… kind of.

“Some of our long time fans may remember that there always used to be four of us. Well, (sad shake of the head), Carlos had to retire.”

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They still won’t show their faces - “Randy” spent the night in a transparent face mask and bald cap, while the two instrumentalists obscured their features behind giant fly-heads. So much for full disclosure.

But the Residents’ elusiveness is part of the show. Those who get their brand of avant-garage schtick don’t really want to know who these people are, whether they’re male or female, or how many are left from the original lineup, which started making records in 1972. The skewed artistic sensibility is recognizable on its own, and the most identifiable face you can put to the name is an enormous top-hatted eyeball head. A group that began life with a series of deadly and hilarious critiques of rock’s celebrity culture, they’ve managed to maintain a control over their image and perception that’s unmatched in modern music. It’s art uncomplicated by personal knowledge of the artists; freed from entanglement with any cult of personality - or any personality at all - the work stands on its own.

The music has evolved without losing the surrealist mentality at its heart. Their most enduring aspect is the pairing of childlike, sing-songy melodies, made weird through woozy, dissonant harmonies, with funny/ creepy lyrics. Consider this couplet from the song “Moisture”:

No one knows exactly who she was or how she died
But when they opened up her purse they found a snail inside

In those two lines, you get a sidelong glance at their David Lynch-like aesthetic, simultaneously unnerving and amusing. The work is willfully strange, and bears little resemblance to most rock music, but dang if there aren’t some catchy tunes buried inside the mess. There’s a pop sensibility at its heart, but the communication is smeared and obscured by the off-balance delivery.

Their infrequent live performances usually center on whatever new work they’ve just created, and this night was no exception. The only oldies my friend and I could spot were the early nuggets “Semolina” and “Death In Barstow”, the latter given a new musical track that made it unrecognizable until the lyrics kicked in, and the more recent “Demons Dance Alone”. For the rest of the night they focused on a series of new pieces, some from their 2009 net-only release The Ughs! The three centerpieces were constructed around videos of people telling disturbing personal stories, projected on circular screens behind the band, with Randy coming up to sing choruses of commentary in the midst of their sordid tales. “Chuck” was controlling the sound via computer - I could see what looked like ProTools files with the individual tracks for each piece - and occasionally adding live keyboards, while “Bob” played sinuous guitar lines over the tracks. The embrace of electric guitar is a relatively recent development, their earlier records being largely axe-free except for the occasional guest spot from Snakefinger or Fred Frith, but it works well with the new music.

Disorientation is natural at a Residents show, but even thirty years of listening to these guys couldn’t prepare me for the sonic assault that climaxed the show, as the sound built up into a primal scream that sounded like a death metal band that's had too much cough syrup. It was shocking, blaringly loud, and utterly transfixing. Almost forty years into their career, having outlived every punk band you could care to name, it's great to see the Residents are not just still at it, but still capable of the unexpected.

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