Music

The Residents: Animal Lover

Hunter Felt

The Residents claim that their latest album was inspired by animal mating patterns. It isn't very sexy though.


The Residents

Animal Lover

Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2005-02-22
UK Release Date: 2005-03-21
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"You know who I really think is bad for rock and roll," Sam would say (or words to that effect), "bands like the Residents. There's no heart in what they do."

Being a moderate fan at the time, I knew there was something great about the Residents, but I also completely understood his point. Few people buy a Residents album because they heard a Residents song that immediately gripped them. People typically begin listening to the Residents because they are enthralled with the idea of the Residents. The idea of four individuals (perhaps) anonymously making strange concept albums about moles and Eskimos, while occasionally embarking on elaborate live shows while donning eyeball masks and top hats, is an absolutely fascinating one for a certain type of music fan. Their music can only rarely match the enduring Myth of the Residents. Their catalogue has moments of greatness, where their relentless anti-pop tone-poems and surreal stories hit moments of insane beauty that owe little to rock music in general. Just as often, however, the Residents can be weighed down by various gimmicks and experiments, and their music can become wearingly formless: a series of willfully strange narratives accompanied by static compositions.

Animal Lover, the latest album from the Residents, claims to be another concept album, about the connections and differences between human beings and their fellow animals. In fact, the album claims that the songs are "based entirely on animal noise mating patterns generated by cicadas and frogs". While the Residents surely are biology buffs, their enormous back catalogue contains a soundtrack to a nature documentary, it is difficult to decide how much this claim, or even the stated theme of the album, has to do with the actual content of the album. The cynic in me wants to suggest that they made the "mating patterns" claim to justify a subtle electronica influence creeping into their synthesizer-driven sound.

There are at least traces of this theme in the work. "On the Way (to Oklahoma)" is sung by a man who becomes a cat and "finally (becomes) sane". The narrator, the unmistakable laconic voice of the prime Residents vocalist (whoever he is), sings about the sensible pleasures of meat and licking himself, which contrast with the insane needs of the consumers on "Two Lips", a song about the tulip craze in seventeenth century Holland. Warped by commercial pressures, the crazed chorus of buyers has pledged to sell their homes to buy tulips. This sounds like a farcical Residents premise except it comes straight from the record books, and the twisted troll voice that rasps about his need for tulips (and his willingness to sell his wife and sons) no longer sounds like over-the-top satire. The spooky "What Have My Chickens Done Now", an oblique play with three different narrative voices: an elderly woman, an eerie childlike voice, and a spooky chorus, pits an elderly woman against her seemingly possessed livestock. The song however, takes no sides about whether the woman or the chorus of sentient chickens is morally in the right (perhaps neither are).

Still, despite their protests about the insanity of man, there is a strange humanitarian urge on Animal Lover that serves as the counter-argument to the Residents' supposed "lack of heart". The Residents, at their best, do not produce sterile experimental pieces designed to repel or inspire polite appreciation. From the beginning, their music has created an unsettling atmosphere that plays out a range of darker emotions: fear, dread, even pity and sadness. The strangely tuned instruments and distorted vocals are not mere parlor tricks, they are used to express the unsettling truth behind the world's supposed order and normalcy. "Inner Space" and "Dead Men" stand out, amongst the seemingly craziness of the rest of the album, as harrowing portraits of human mortality. The female narrator of "Inner Space" recalls witnessing her father's increasing isolation and coldness as he faced death, singing in a detached voice that suggests a numbed pain. "Dead Men" follows soon after, as another unearthly chorus speculates on the traits we will have after we die, concluding, starkly, that "dead men are only in the way". It would be hard to argue that there is no way to listen to these songs, and decide that the Residents came from an emotionless place.

However, Sam may have a point after all. Animal Lovers' weak points may show the Residents to be all eyeball masks and no cattle. The Residents successfully add a needed energy into their music, maybe because they are actually following the rhythm of frogs bumpin' uglies, as the "close enough for rock and roll" instrumental "Mr. Bee's Bumble" and the spooky samba of "The Whispering Boys" prove. Still, much of the album gets reduced into slightly off-kilter new age with occasional horror show effects. In attempting to subvert pop music in general, the Residents often find themselves removing anything remotely interesting from their music. On Animal Lovers, the Residents show, as always, a lot of heart and thought in the lyrics and ideas and even in their theatrical vocal performances, but that effort only sporadically shows up in the music itself.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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