Review: Eskimo

Eskimo (album)

Eskimo (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, we’re stealin’ the idea from the Sparks Project and doing one with probably even more records out there — The Residents!  And this time we’re changing it up a little bit — we’ve got two hardcore Residents fans in me and Rich, but Aila is, at best, a casual fan, who will be hearing about 99% of these records for the first time.  DANGEROUS!  So, enjoy, THE RESIDENTS PROJECT!

Aila: I’m not sure what to make of Eskimo. It consists of mostly gibberish, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It probably falls somewhere in the middle of The Residents records I’ve heard so far, in terms of how much I enjoyed it.

Musically, this is actually one of the better Residents efforts to this point. It’s a weird soundscape dominated by percussion, synths and ambient noises, but one that seems well thought out and it’s quite enjoyable to listen to. In some ways it would work well as an ambient record, if stripped of the vocals. The vocals are mostly gibberish, apparently attempting to emulate some sort of native language, but there are a few English words that can be made out at various points. One of the few phrases I recognized was ‘we don’t know how to pray’ in “A Spirit Steals A Child.” There are six tracks on the album, all of which flow naturally into each other. It’s very difficult for me to pick out any highlights, as it does seem to be more one piece of (very experimental) music rather than an ‘album’ of songs, per se.

The Residents did supply stories to go along with each of the tracks on Eskimo. They are, of course, utter bullshit – but entertaining bullshit, especially from my perspective as someone who originally came from Alaska. Not that I lived in the bush amongst the natives, but I grew up learning enough about their culture(s) to know that the Residents version is nonsense. Which doesn’t really matter, as this is clearly an exercise in absurdity. It was nice to learn that the ‘Eskimo’ that this album is supposedly based on was ‘rescued’ from their miserable existence and ended up in government housing, watching reruns on television all day – true paradise! In some ways this album could be taken as quite insulting to Inuits (the term ‘Eskimo’ itself is pretty politically incorrect in most contexts these days), but it’s probably too silly to be taken that seriously.

Overall, this is certainly worth listening to. It’s not the best of The Residents albums I’ve heard so far, but it certainly isn’t the worst. As far as a concept album (something the band seems to do a lot of), it might be the best one of theirs I’ve heard to this point. It’s certainly different from what came before. And what came before was already pretty ‘different.’

Rev. Syung Myung Me: Eskimo was another “hit” album, and the first to have the famous Eyeball Heads on the sleeve. This was a set of soundscapes that illustrated the written stories accompanying the record. There aren’t any songs on this album, but it’s still very listenable and engaging. One of the stories I like is that one of the Cryptics’ wives would play this album out the window every Halloween.  Though the album’s not very Halloweeny in most respects, the malleability of the stories would probably lend itself to that.

I never picked up on “We don’t know how to pray”, but I do like the other messages, mostly in the last track, “Festival of Death”…. which I won’t spoil, though they should be familiar to modern ears.

They later released a DVD with a 5.1 surround sound mix with images to go along with the stories. The mix was good, but the videos are sometimes a little too literal—one of my favorite things with the album is that you can get lost in the soundscape, but if you read the story along with it, you can hear the events—the people coming up on the walrus during the hunt and it being speared; with the video, it becomes a little more obvious. However, there is a lot of bonus material on the disc, and the video is neat to see sometimes as well (and, if you’ve got a 5.1 receiver, you can just turn off the TV).

One other thing with this album—since they realized it could be seen as a bit of a pretentious project, to combat that, the Residents also released a single version of Eskimo called Diskomo, which were some of the poppier elements of the album put with a drum machine beat to be danceable, and this actually became a bit of a hit in its own right (there are stories of the Residents going into clubs where a bootleg had been pressed under a different name, “Even Now” by L & O (credited to Luk Devrieze) — so they bought a box to send their publishing company after them for plagiarism, though nothing really came of it.

Richard J. Anderson: Eskimo is not your normal album. It’s not even your normal Residents album, and that’s saying something. Ostensibly, Eskimo is a mock field recording, wherein The Residents attempt to recreate traditional Eskimo music and chants for you, the listener, with traditional instruments and even a recording of Real Arctic Air, supposedly given to them by the mysterious N. Senada. (See Not Available for more detail on that guy.) Each track captures a snippet of Eskimo life: hunting a walrus for food, the birth of a child, a case of Arctic Hysteria… In lieu of song lyrics, the album sleeve explains each track as a story interspersed with facts on Eskimo life. It would be an amazing audio documentary… if any of it were genuine, it would be an amazing artifact.

But it’s not. It’s a fake. It’s a joke. It’s a brilliant, incredible, mind-blowing, vision-altering joke.

It’s also a deep album. The more you listen, the more you pick up, especially with the lyrics. What can, at first, sound like nonsense chanting is often real English lyrics, and they’re absurdly funny. For example, in “The Walrus Hunt,” after you hear them “kill” the “walrus,” the chanting is “Breakfast! Breakfast! Great for us!” Elsewhere, “Birth” ends with chants of “Aren’t you cute!” at the Eskimo baby. I don’t want to spoil the surprises later on, but if you pay attention, there’s lots to be rewarded by. Suffice it to say, every time I listen to Eskimo, I discover something else in the lyrics. Musically, it builds on the exploration in “Six Things to a Cycle,” with a lot of interesting percussion, chants, and multi-tracking studio work.

Of course, The Residents couldn’t do a project so potentially pretentious without poking fun at themselves. The next year, they put out a seven minute disco remix of the album, titled Diskomo, which took a lot of the main themes and vocals, and set them to a disco beat. Weirdly, it was a minor hit in European dance clubs. Eskimo was also a relative hit in the US, with some surprising critical acclaim. I love it, but it’s not an album I pick up regularly. Eskimo isn’t made for casual listening—it’s made to be experienced. Grab a blanket, curl up by your stereo, put on some headphones and prepare for a surreal trip to the arctic. You’ll be glad you did.

 

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One comment

  1. Baker

    I started listening to the Residents as a nine year old (1979), having been introduced to them by a demented uncle the year prior. Eskimo, for me, is the Residents’ pinnacle. There is a chilling beauty in that recording that has rarely been topped.

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