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The Residents

You don't have to dip too deeply into the musical avant-garde to realize that the Residents--the anonymous, tuxedo-clad, eyeball-headed musicians--aren't all that intense, especially when compared to the relentlessness of Helden or the mechanistic clank of Can. Still, those are European bands, and the Residents--transplanted to San Francisco in 1972, reportedly from Louisiana--are a homegrown version of that wilful nonconformity. The weight of centuries that's accumulated behind exploratory music from the Old World, however, hangs much lighter on the Residents, allowing a more playful point of view. Full of weird, machine-generated noises and rhythms, processed and altered vocals deployed theatrically, and song structures that defy expectation, the Residents' music is based on the knowledge that you must fully understand something in order to effectively turn it on its ear and that mocking buffoonery and decrying evil are often not as different as they seem.

This two-disc set covers the whole of the band's career. Since almost all of their albums have been rather conceptual--with a high degree of interrelation between songs--certain important milestones have been "concentrated" into long single selections that convey overall gist. Some of the distillations are of The Third Reich 'n' Roll, the 1975 album that started their national rep, and Eskimo, their version of traditional Eskimo storytelling, in which the narrative is advanced by sound, not words. Also "concentrated" are 1976's Fingerprince and Have a Bad Day, the soundtrack to last year's innovative CD-ROM project Bad Day on the Midway. In addition, 10 songs from The Commercial Album--a collection of 60-second songs no longer than an ad spot--appear, including the bizarre "Easter Woman" and the surprisingly accessible "Amber."

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Like many experimentalists, the Residents were not only a source of weirdness but a filter through which other things could pass and be changed. Their yen for mutating pop staples appears as the band de- and re-constructs James Brown ("This is a Man's World,"), Hank Williams ("Jambalaya," an ergot-infused, slow-mo slide through backwoods weirdness and voodoo ritual, and "Kawliga"), and of course the Rolling Stones ("Satisfaction"). "Satisfaction" was the 1976 single that made them punk darlings. Compare their dark, furiously discordant version to Devo's later take--all boingy lampoon and spastic fun--and hear the difference ambition and insight make. Brilliantly reinforced over the entire two-disc set, it's the argument for the Residents in a nutshell.

--Matt Weitz

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