"Enjoy the mutated experience!"—Helpful technical advice
I first saw the Residents when I was in college. We ran 16mm versions of their experimental music videos—"Third Reich and Roll," "One Minute Movies," and several others (along with fellow travelers Snakefinger and others)—one night instead of the usual foreign art films. I went to a very strange college. In any case, as I watched these weirdoes in tuxedos and eyeball masks dance across the screen, I could feel my mind twisting in knots. And every time I encounter a new phase of their careers over the years, I have been surprised and impressed by their continued growth as artists. Avant-garde pioneers, skilled musicians with a penchant for furious and witty deconstruction, performance art comedians. These are the Residents. Nobody knows who they really are. Nobody knows what they will do next. But we can only stare in wonder at those unblinking eyes.
Facts of the Case
This is the part of the show where I usually describe the plot. But Icky Flix is a video compilation, a collection of most of the greatest work by the strangest musicians working today. This is performance art the way it ought to be: funny, disturbing and musically brilliant. The Residents, anonymous musicians most often seen wearing giant eyeballs and top hats, are best known perhaps for their brilliant reinterpretations of classic pop songs that cut right to the dark side of human nature. But they are also excellent composers in their own right, constantly surprising audiences with cutting edge experiments. Their early film work, like "Third Reich and Roll," arguably invented the music video format back in the 1970s. Their stage productions of the 1980s reinvented performance art. And their forays into CD-ROM interactivity and computer animation in the 1990s introduced many to the cinematic potential of computer games.
And Icky Flix covers the visual side of the Residents almost perfectly. And it sounds great too. In keeping with the Residents' tradition of constant experimentation and transformation, every video is not only accompanied by its original stereo mix, but the band has re-recorded every track, with new instrumentation and vocals, in Dolby 5.1. In some cases, the new version is quite different in tone than its predecessor.
Although the videos appear in particular order on the "Play All" feature (with bizarre bumpers to separate them), and are grouped non-chronologically in the "Video Cube" feature, I will discuss them in a more "thematic" order, to give you a sense of the breadth of the Residents' work.
Classics: "Third Reich and Roll" is a controversial 1976 video already inducted into the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. Pop music ("Land of a Thousand Dances," although the full album features dozens of other mangled tunes) and media images (televisions, newspapers) transform into the iconography of fascism: KKK hoods and swastikas. The oppressiveness of the pop genre becomes drum-driven primitivism. In the new audio mix, the music takes on undertones of trip-hop, the new conformist music. This was the first Residents video I ever saw, and it blew my mind. "One Minute Movies:" Also added to the collection at MOMA, this group of four mini-movies features (in its original, somewhat pinched audio mix) a cameo by Residents' collaborator Snakefinger. The new audio track is more expansive, but Snakefinger's precise guitar work is sorely missing. "Hello Skinny" is one of the group's most haunting early songs, about an everyman who has seen and suffered too much.
The CD-ROM Years: The Residents reached a whole new audience during the 1990s when they collaborated with graphic designers and comic artists to create a trio of brilliant CD-ROMs, Freak Show (which used to feature a secret gallery with many of the classic videos and lots of concert footage not included here, all in tiny QuickTime packages), The Gingerbread Man, and the non-linear game Bad Day on the Midway. "Harry the Head" (a catchy tune with a creepy echoing voice on its original track, but a looser, more live-performance feel on the new track) and "Jelly Jack" are featured from Freak Show. A ten-minute "concentrate" of stories from The Gingerbread Man shows a host of compromised lives—a forgotten rock musician, a lonely and bitter old lady, an artist gone corporate, and others—who have failed to catch their escaping dreams. The old audio has an operatic feel, while the new track seems more edgy and whispery. From Bad Day on the Midway, we get a hilariously creepy deconstruction of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," done up as a Cold War shooting gallery (look out for that half-moon Khrushchev swinging a shoe!) and a ten-minute "concentrate" of the best scenes from the game (including several that I've never been able to get to—it is a tough game to navigate, even with the cluebook). Both "concentrate" versions are newly visualized, using the original computer models to construct cinematic tours of the original album-length works.
Live Performance and Cover Versions: Known for their bizarre stage spectacles (including the multi-part "Mole Show," none of which is featured on this disc for some reason, except a brief and grainy clip as an Easter egg), the Residents offer re-edited rehearsal footage for a 1986 track called "Where Is She?" Two very different audio mixes (the older track fast and furious, the new one with a deliberate, pained vocal and wailing guitar). They also present a bit from a rarely seen 1997 German TV special called "Just for You (Disfigured Night, Part 7)," which transforms "We Are the World" into a song of romantic humiliation (playing, I suppose, off the hidden guilt in the original song). The Residents love to reinterpret popular music to expose its hidden sides (all the way back to the original "Third Reich and Roll"). My favorite Residents video has always been their cover of James Brown's "This a Man's Man's Man's World," perhaps because Brown's original is so cryptically fascinating, a seemingly desperate plea for masculine control that seems to quake at its foundations. The Residents find that edge of panic and tease it out: from the creepy male vocal of the original audio mix, to Molly Harvey's weary and plaintive female vocal on the new mix, to the always powerful image in the video of the Residents (in eyeball and tux, of course) shivering as they creep backwards through an industrial wasteland. Is it any wonder that the Godfather of Soul is a Residents fan too? The strangest cover song on this disc is the band's inclusion of a Renaldo and the Loaf video "Songs for Swinging Larvae." This fellow Ralph Records act (the Residents' original label, before forming their own Cryptic Corporation) hailed from Britain and their song, about the passage to manhood viewed as a perverse kidnapping, is creepy enough in its original form, but the new Residents cover version is even more moody and sinister.
New Videos: Quite a few tracks on this compilation are featured with brand new videos, in some cases for older songs. "Constantinople" features a singing severed head for a 1978 New Wave dream of exotic lands. "He Also Serves" fuses sexual and religious ecstasy for an eerily romantic song from 1992. "Kick a Picnic" (both these last two tracks are from the 1992 20th anniversary album, "Our Finest Flowers," which reinterprets earlier Residents music) seems very much a tribute to the bluesy sound of Snakefinger, who died in 1987. The new audio track is more dreamlike and features vocals by Molly Harvey, who seems to turn up on most recent Residents projects. One of those newer projects is the brilliant album Wormwood, which teases out the darker side of the Bible to tell stories of betrayal, murder, and terror. "Burn Baby Burn" (featured here in a new video with its audio track recorded live from the Residents' recent tour for Wormwood) tells the story from Judges in which Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to win God's favor in war.
The grand prize for longtime Residents fans is a seventeen-minute edit of the notorious "Vileness Fats" project. Intended as a feature film back in 1972, the band assembled this monster piecemeal for several years, before abandoning it and showing off a truncated version ten years later as "Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats?" Now this new edit captures the experimental feel of the project, a hallucinatory look at the dual nature of the human mind: a schizophrenic (alternately the overpious Saint Steve and the rebellious Lonesome Jack) rules a land of one-armed midgets. Although the video quality is weak in spots, due to budgetary constraints, the film is brilliantly inventive, featuring a cave made of balloons, painted expressionist sets (like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and even dueling Siamese twins! I suspect Richard Elfman saw bootleg footage from this before making his 1980 film Forbidden Zone.
All the videos are shown full-frame and vary in quality. The older ones have a "home movie" feel to them, enhancing the sense of guerilla cinema. Most are pretty blemish free, and the video for "Third Reich and Roll" has been completely restored from a recently discovered color print. The videos made for the CD-ROMs tend to be slightly lower in graphics resolution due to the limitations of the original technology (the audio as well has a slightly pinched quality due to the Residents' overuse of MIDI in those days). The newer videos are crisp and vibrant. Each video includes on-disc liner notes (also available in the accompanying booklet), as well as an overall discography and some very funny technical advice on how to operate the disc (audiophiles are encouraged to wear a blindfold during the videos).
As noted above, there are two audio mixes. Both are clean and free of distortion, and the new 5.1 mix takes advantage of its expanded field to play with more subtle audio effects than were often present in the original versions. I wonder what new interpretations the Residents will come up with in ten or fifteen years.
A special treat for Residents fans is the inclusion of nine Easter eggs from "Smelly Tongues' Secret Cinema." All are short clips, squeezed into tiny boxes on screen (like some sort of bootleg footage), ranging from live performance bits (including a TV appearance with Conway Twitty!) to clips from Pee Wee's Playhouse and Henry Selick's "Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions," both of which featured Residents music. If that doesn't convince you that this band is cool, nothing will.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The most glaring drawback to the disc is the lack of subtitles, which should be mandatory on all music video discs—and not just for the karaoke crowd. Some of the lyrics on the Residents' songs are hard enough to figure out even if you know them, but the lack of subtitles make it tough for those who might just be catching on to the complexities of this band.
A few tracks I would have liked to see again seem to be missing here. Where is "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers?" Why so little of Cube-E and nothing of the Mole series? And the Easter egg clips are way too short (and sometimes compressed too small). But those criticisms aside, this disc is essential even for the casual fan of the group.
The Residents can be a tough sell for newcomers. If you want a taste of this DVD for free (hey, who's your pal?), check out the link to the side for an online concert of the band performing Icky Flix live. The Residents are not as esoteric as they might seem at first glance. They may look weird, but they are the closest rock and roll has come to real art since Frank Zappa.
Mr. Skull, the band's lead singer, offers the prosecutor a tasty ear of corn, and all is well. All charges withdrawn. Case dismissed.
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