[7 January 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s a well known fact that famed cult filmmaker John Waters was obsessed with crime as a child. Instead of spending his free time playing with trucks or pawing over a well worn comic book, he was staging fake car crashes (complete with blood curdling screams) and reading up on scandalous cases involving gruesome, gory violence. It is safe to say that the lead individual in the new multimedia event from those avant-garde eccentrics, The Residents, would eagerly join Waters in his pursuit of terrible transgressions. Always on the cutting edge of the cultural hub, the mystifying musical group (identities never revealed, faces obscured by large, top-hatted eyeballs) has returned to one of entertainments oldest formats –- the radio drama –- to create a 20-part series on one man’s obsession with all things cruel and immoral.
The River of Crime (named for a brilliant analogy made by our unnamed hero for his freakish fascination) is not the first off the wall endeavor by the experimental artists. From the earliest days of the PC, the group was attempting stand-alone experiences (the CD-Rom titles Freak Show and Bad Day on the Midway) and bold innovations in computer-centric presentations (The Gingerbread Man). But this attempt at recreating the old wireless serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s is unlike anything the band has braved before. Part history lesson, part Inner Sanctum style horror homage, River of Crime plays with the aural aspects of our post-millennial technological breadth to open up and overflow the theater of your mind. Using old sonics and new science, the resulting head-trip is simultaneously informative and undeniably creepy.
“Episode One: The Kid Who Collected Crimes” introduces us to the multi-leveled approach The Residents will take here. As their unique combination of ambient angst plays in the background (the music here is magnificent –- more on this later), the narrative establishes a wonderfully evocative and enigmatic style. Our protagonist shares his earliest memories of being fascinated by inventions. Before you know it, he’s come to appreciate the electric chair and all the nasty things it can do to the human body. As he regales us with background on the device, and describes in gruesome detail how electricity alters and destroys an individual’s internal organs, there are moments when the gruesomeness gives way to grandeur. Indeed, one of the most amazing things about River of Crime is how beautifully written it is. Since The Residents are notoriously oblique about their creative process, one can only assume that they harbor a hidden literary genius in their midst.
The storylines then shifts to the personal, as our lead learns that, somewhere in his life, his fascinations have legitimate links. In Kid, it turns out that a next door neighbor is the mother of one of the first women ever executed. Desperate to connect with the event, our narrator steals a portrait of the daughter, and relishes his newly obtained talisman. But River of Crime is not finished fascinating us quite yet. As he reflects on the photo, our narrator slips into melancholia, making it very clear that a life in pursuit of such a passion is as delightful as it is disturbing. Indeed, via the mixed messages the presentation itself provides –- there are moments in every installment of great humor and horrifying dread – the band breaks many storytelling taboos to make sure their cynical conceit comes across.
What River of Crime wants to make clear is that those who play vicariously in the realm of evil and lawlessness are often bound to or bitten by it. In “Episode 4: The Beards”, our hero is accused of abducting a child, the result of a babysitting stint gone horribly, horribly wrong. All throughout the tale, the competing elements of Bluebeard (thus the title), the UK rapist Edward Paisnel, and French nobleman Gilles de Rais add to the atmosphere of pedophilic horror. Along with the use of modified vocals (processed to sound distorted, slowed down or augmented in a quite disturbing manner) and the group’s signature music, the effect is the kind of terror that shreds up your insides. Indeed, the score is one of River of Crime‘s best elements. Fans should really seek out the limited edition two CD version of the title, since it contains all five installments and over an hour of instrumental tracks.
It’s no real surprise that The Residents can successfully manage this kind of model. From their earliest works -– Not Available, an LP that was literary not supposed to end up in the public’s hands, Eskimo with its auditory recreation of Native Inuit life, The Commercial Album, a clever collection of 60-second songs, etc. –- the band has baffled the mainstream by embracing subjects both sinister and silly, using a conceptual approach to tie everything, even the most divergent and disturbing factors –- together. It’s the same with River of Crime. We are intrigued by the narrator’s discoveries, sickened by his attention to disgusting detail, morbid curiosity and tendency toward gallows’s humor. Yet it must say something about us that we want to follow along on these twisted tales of discovery. It’s a testament to the band’s talent –- and their writer’s way with words -– that we come away feeling nauseous but knowledgeable.
The remaining three episodes –- “#2 Gator Hater” (about that urban legend of alligators in the sewer), “#3 Misdelivered Mummy” (about an accidentally obtained diary and the secrets within), and “#5 Termites from Formosa!” (revolving around a busy bug man, and the discovery of something icky in the attic) –- all follow the pattern set up previously, as well as setting the stage for future installments (currently, only these five are available at places like ITunes and Rhapsody). While 20 total tales were promised, it appears the group has abandoned that idea to focus on a new viral video series for YouTube entitled Timmy. The premise is similar to the one here in that our precocious little child (a character from Bad Day on the Midway) describes unusual events in his life, David Lynch like, while old stock footage from educational films and newsreels is used to illustrate the story. With titles like “Timmy and the Unclean”, and “Timmy and the Scary Mice”, you can sense the band having fun with such surrealism.
Like any half completed project, River of Crime is so intriguing, so mesmerizing in what it has presented so far that it would be a shame to see it totally dropped. Unlike their obtuse Mole Trilogy, which sat around for so long that the group ended up opting for a weird four album answer to the inevitable fan clamor, something as solid as this radio play revamp deserves to be taken seriously. As musicians, The Residents have always experimented with style, form, shape and substance. In the case of this atmospheric entertainment, they’ve made the awful artful.