25 Years On, and Not a Jingle in Sight
A long time ago, back when I had received my first CD player in 1989 for a birthday gift, I had entered the age of exploring “other” music. Call it “college” music if you will, artier junk, stuff that you’d read about that didn’t get played on the major radio stations, whatever. My explorations led me into the realms of Frank Zappa, the Replacements, Camper Van Beethoven, Captain Beefheart, and other groups that for the most part were historically important but didn’t necessarily get big time airplay. Of course, MTV was rectifying this at the time with the new idea of 120 Minutes, its best show ever, but even it would wane when all the fringe music became less interesting itself.
I also had an arsenal of books on rock music. Album guides, guides to rock, Top 10 list books, you name it. If it had to do with rock music, I wanted to read it. One of these books mentioned a band by the name of the Residents. They seemed fairly interesting in a textual way, never revealing who they were, having completely bastardized the Beatles’ Meet the Beatles cover art on Meet The Residents, and only ever appearing in those huge eyeball mask costumes. Now, in the time of the digital realm, Residents CDs (or albums for that matter) were not easy to come by, at least where I lived. So it was much to my delight when I stumbled across a copy of the Residents’ Commercial Album at the time.
What a deal, I thought. 40 tunes, all one minute long, composed with the idea that they’d be “commercial”. An excellent idea and it had to be an incredible masterpiece in theory and execution, right? Well, having not heard any of the Residents’ music prior to my purchase, I can safely say that I was totally at a loss with the disc. For here were not 40 commercial sounding songs at all, but rather 40 odd snippets of abstract design that seemed to come out of nowhere and leave to the same place. What the hell? So I sold the damn thing, happy to get rid of it, having not understood it at all, and not caring to.
Since then, I’ve gotten into all sorts of esoteric music. The short list would include such artists as Faust, Can, Nurse with Wound, Jandek, Devendra Banhart, Crevice, and other sorts who have toyed with or do straddle the fringe regularly. So when I saw that there was a 25th Anniversary version of Commercial Album being released, I figured my time had come and maybe, just maybe, it would click for me at last.
Not only do I no longer despise this album, but I feel that it is an incredibly influential work. Perhaps not on a lot of bands the majority of music fans would be familiar with, but certainly any number of indie label groups you might care to explore. Especially the kinds who make their music out of their bedrooms with a computer, a silly old keyboard, and maybe a dusty old drum machine and a guitar for good measure. The music on the Commercial Album is often skeletal at best, and this is what I didn’t get the first time around: that this album was a parody of commerciality. That it was supposed to be difficult, even though it was a tongue-in-cheek project.
For what it’s worth, I will say that if Ween aren’t fans of the Residents, or haven’t been influenced in some way by this album, I’d honestly be surprised. So many tunes on here are of the classic Ween style: sped up or slowed down vocals, silly lyrics that probably only mean something to the band members themselves, and these homemade electronic beats that at times get funky in their robotic chemistry. So if you do happen to be into Ween, then I highly suggest you pick this album up and give it a try. You may be pleasantly surprised.
But don’t come here expecting rock. Only a couple tracks here really feature guitar, and when they do, it seems like a jolt to the system. For the most part, these are oddball synthesized ditties that manage to come off not sounding dated, even though this album was originally released in the early ‘80s, probably because the music itself is so unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. Oh, it sounds like certain things, such as oriental restaurant music, soap opera themes, sci-fi movie incidentals, and so forth, but even those descriptions don’t fully envelop what Commercial Album is really all about, because all of those traits are sometimes running simultaneously in one song.
This deluxe new version is deluxe only in its packaging, and for once that’s a great thing. Too often these days, the labels are pushing out “deluxe versions” of albums that feature a second disc of lousy b-sides and “obscurities” that didn’t need to see the light of day. Thankfully here, Commercial Album is merely presented in a CD-sized hardback book style of sleeve, with lyrics to not only the original 40 songs, but 12 more that were recorded for a video version of the album, along with stills from that video and a short history of the album itself. All in all, a sweet package, and one that doesn’t rip off the fan in any way.
It’s funny to finally come around to an album some 15 or so years later and finally “get it”. But sometimes works of this kind require that kind of patience. Indeed, if you’re the kind of person who has enjoyed some or any of the groups or artists I mentioned earlier, then you too might find great joy in Commercial Album, especially if you’re a fan of indie rock and hearing the surprising influential sounds this album threw out all those years ago. It still may not be “commercial” at all, but now that I understand the whole thing, I realize that that is the best thing about the album overall.