’80 Aching Orphans,’ the Residents’ new career-spanning box set
It seems like only yesterday I was reaching up to the counter of the Virgin Megastore with a handful of allowance money from the candy-slimed pockets of my short pants, then striding out confidently into a beautiful future, with the Residents’ 20th anniversary album, Our Finest Flowers, in DIY shrinkwrap. The CD sounded great in a darkened bedroom. It was based, the band said, on a greatest hits sequence they’d written out for the occasion, which generated ideas for new interpretations of the catalog after one of the members puked on it, smearing the ink.
Excluding the $100,000 refrigerator and the live collection Kettles of Fish on the Outskirts of Town, this is the first retrospective box set from the Residents since 1997’s Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses, which was an ambitious attempt to showcase all the band’s albums and singles to date. Even then, the nature of the catalog presented obstacles. Take my favorite Residents album, Not Available, a four-part suite with an epilogue: how do you fit that on a best-of disc?
The 1997 box set ‘Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses’
To solve this problem, some albums were represented in condensed versions the Residents created for the release (such as the eight-minute track “Fingerprince Concentrate”), an ingenious idea that proved musically unsatisfying. Listening to a nine-minute summary of the Mole Trilogy gives you the itch but doesn’t scratch it. The best part of the box—at least, the fancy import version from Euro Ralph—was Roosevelt, the disc of bonus goodies, which contained outtakes from an unfinished project called The Man’s Album, the suite Prelude to the Teds, and a track from the Residents’ storied, unreleased 1971 album Baby Sex.
The new box set commemorating the band’s 45th anniversary, 80 Aching Orphans, isn’t programmed by format or in chronological order, and it doesn’t worry about the conceptual unity of the original albums or their constituent parts. Instead, it’s a selection of musical high points from the Residents’ career, arranged in a purposefully scrambled sequence that mixes up obscurities (if they aren’t all obscurities) with chestnuts. I think it’s more fun to listen to and more representative of the full range of the Residents’ work than any collection since the Heaven? and Hell! set. Homer Flynn of the Cryptic Corporation acknowledges the compilers’ approach in his liner notes:
The “songs” contained on these four discs bounce around like ping-pong balls flying from the paddles of Eighty Aching Octopi. You see, while The Residents didn’t invent the concept album, they’ve certainly pushed and mangled the conceit to new depths. But what happens to odd but compelling fragments, once separated from their musical kin? Well duh… they become orphans. And, longing for the companionship of their deserted brothers, sisters and mutant offspring, they ache.
Familiar numbers like “Kaw-Liga,” the Hank Williams classic the Residents superimposed on the rhythm track to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (presented here in its astonishing nine-and-a-half-minute “prairie mix”), push up against selections from the really arcane stuff: Intermission, Diskomo, The Beatles Play The Residents And The Residents Play The Beatles, Babyfingers, Subterranean Modern, the split album with Renaldo and the Loaf, the soundtrack to the Discovery Channel series Hunters: The World of Predators and Prey, the UWEB fan club CDs, and so on. The holy relic is a portion of the appropriately named very limited release Pollex Christi, a piece the Residents claimed their musical mentor, the Mysterious N. Senada, composed during 1936 and 1937.
Miserable in 2017: a band photo from the liners of ‘80 Aching Orphans’
Even with Mr. Skull blowing his brains out with a flare gun on the cover, Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses appears, in retrospect, as a relatively upbeat package. Its mock-heroic depictions of the Residents at the Statue of Liberty and the Capitol are violent, but plush; the country is crazy, but flush with cash. By contrast, the grainy black-and-white band photos in the 80 Aching Orphans book make Dorothea Lange’s subjects look like a bunch of greedy fat cats. There’s a Resident cowering in the corner of a tenement bathroom; there’s a whole orphanage full of Residents babies huddled in a single crib in a bombed-out ruin. Why, when they grow up, these kids are liable to get into knife fights over used mud. I mean poor!
Below, watch the just-released trailer for the Residents’ Double Trouble, not a remake of the Elvis movie but “a film that updates and expands Vileness Fats, their unfinished 1970s masterpiece.” Homer Flynn describes the plot in the 80 Aching Orphans liner notes:
Word is that Randy Rose – singer for the Residents – is planning a movie, Double Trouble, wherein his son, Junior, discovers the original Vileness Fats tapes at some point in the future and finds his life mirroring that of Lonesome Jack, the hero of the original movie. Chaos, no doubt, ensues.
And here’s the classic video for “Hello Skinny”: