Tuesday , April 23 2024
A classic slab of avant-garde weirdness from the late seventies gets a spiffy new reissue.

Music Review: The Residents – Duck Stab

Even a hard-core pop-rock junkie can occasionally feel the urge for some bracingly ugly music: in the late sixties, that need was best met by Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention; in the late seventies, it was a group of anonymous wise asses named the Residents. Through a series of albums which simultaneously built upon and deconstructed Top Forty tropes (Meet the Residents, The Third Reich 'n' Roll, Fingerprince), this band of faceless conceptualists produced an amazing catalog of comically abrasive anti-pop pop: music designed to get on the nerves of even those who thought that punk was the pinnacle of musical rebelliousness.

Of the early Residents' releases, perhaps their best-known – and most accessible – was 1978's Duck Stab. Recently reissued by Mute Records in a handsomely designed hardbound booklet/CD, Stab first was released as a seven-song EP, which quickly was coupled with a second EP (Buster & Glen) into long-playing format. This gives the full disc a sort of Magical Mystery Tour feel – with two blocs of music jostling against each other. The disc's opening track "Constantinople" even gets reiterated with the chaotic seventh blues jazz cut "Elvis and His Boss," providing a sense of closure to the first batch of songs even if, lyrically, the listener doesn't really have a clue as to what it's really all about.

With the exception of one instrumental ("Booker Tease," which blends a soulful bass line with shrieking horn work), the two sets of music follow a similar strategy: hooky tune work subverted by out-of-tune instrumentation – some of which sounds like the background arrangement from some old warped '78 – dadaesque poetry and cartoonish vocals which manage to make Captain Beefheart sound mainstream. In "Blue Rosebuds," for instance, a damaged singer's sappy love song is interrupted by a high-pitched voice declaiming absurdest put downs ("Infection is your finest flower mildewed in the midst"), while "Sinister Exaggerator" undercuts its effectively ominous guitar stabs (courtesy of guest fingerman Snakefinger) with a barking background chorus that sounds like something the Manimals on the island of Dr. Moreau might've chanted. Good ambient music for those who've used the soundtrack to Eraserhead to put 'em to sleep at nights: the "In Heaven" song could've easily been non-sung by a Resident in one of his little girl voices.

Many of the songs that make up the second half of the disc (a.k.a. the Buster & Glen EP) toy with the themes of disconnected families ("Birthday Boy," "Lizard Lady") and body dysmorphia that the group would return to in their groundbreaking Freak Show CD-Rom. "Weight Lifting Lulu" features a narrator who's simultaneously appalled and aroused by his girlfriend's physique ("I hated your body but needed your touch."), while "Hello Skinny" describes a noodle-thin entrepreneur who sells a used copy of a Hello Dolly record to a truck driver – climaxing in a tuneless rendition of that musical's show stopping chorus. The whole shmear concludes with "The Electrocutioner," a warped little ditty sung by Ruby of the long-departed Rick & Ruby comedy troupe, a group with ties to Peewee Herman's old live comedy shows.

Depending on your tolerance for willful weirdness, you've either stopped listening to Duck Stab long before the Buster & Glen bits or immediately hit "replay" when you get to the end. To test their admirers' perspicacity, the group would follow this release with Eskimo, a totally tuneless aural collage filled with wind sounds, barks and grunts which purports to tell a tale of life in the frozen North. I still don't know what to make of that puppy – also recently reissued by Mute – but I'll happily cop to loudly singin' along with Stab's "Constantinople."

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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