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 cadre of one-eyed malcontents -- led by Mr. Skull -- remains cloaked in deliberate secrecy. And while they proudly anoint themselves The World's Most Famous Unknown Band, the Bay Area transplants from Shreveport, Louisiana, can't disguise the fact that their high-concept efforts get more accessible and melodic with each passing year. That said, the band'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 is so big that he can wash his own ears with it. Tongue dreams of a wonderful life, 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 the Dinosaur sound-alike with a Southern drawl), Tongue enters a profound state of denial, succumbs to more beaver fever (most notably on "Betty's Body"), then finally looks for a girl with more steak than sizzle and ultimately finds her likeness in the "Beekeeper's Daughter." Honey-flavored harmonies, trademark synthesizers and vocal vocoders enhance this singsongy and cautionary song cycle; at 28 tracks (seven of which are incidental padding to give the package more girth), it's music purely for the sake of music, but it feels as though it's been 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 projects from the band's back catalogue. It's perfect one-stop shopping for novices but will probably feel like more of the same for hunters and collectors who need not sell their old Residents stuff in order to buy new Residents stuff. Spanning time from the present to the past, the collection highlights hits from Demons Dance Alone on down to 1974's Smelly Tongues, taking the 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. Glaringly absent from the collection are any of the icon-trampling cuts from the group's American Composer series (where James Brown and John Philip Sousa got the stink-eye treatment in spades) as well as any samples of the music the group scored for five episodes of Pee Wee's Playhouse. And for all of the curious factoids that accompany the package (for one: Marlboro actually once commissioned the band for a performance in Germany, provided Mr. Skull remove himself from the stage), the Rez seems more committed to marketing than music on Petting Zoo. In the liner notes, they 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 mixed-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 collective bed is not only alive and well but still snickering up its sleeve.