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!
Richard J. Anderson: If you read my review of The King & Eye, you may have caught a brief reference to Cube-E. Here we are. Like The American Composers Series before it, the Cube-E project is an ambitious project that falters due to uneven execution. Cube-E was a massive performance project by The Residents, showing the history of American music in “three EZ pieces.” It begins with western, cowboy music in Buckaroo Blues, then goes into black spirituals and the blues for Black Barry, and finally the synthesis of the two as personified through the music of Elvis Presley. All of these are performed with the distinctly non-historic sounds of Macintosh MIDI presets and an electronic drum pad. The live album only gives us part of the story. From the video that survived of the show, it was quite the spectacle. If only the music lived up to it… Cube-E: Live in Holland proves that it doesn’t, at least not entirely.
Much of the same complaints I have about the music The King & Eye apply here. It’s all tinny MIDI samples, with a paucity of live instrumentation. I’m not going to repeat myself. Still, listening to “Bury Me Not” gives the game away. Thankfully, unlike the studio treatment on The King & Eye, the live setting gives everything a little more depth—but only a little. It still sounds an awful lot like listening to someone play back MIDI files downloaded off the web, circa 1995, albeit on a machine with a top of the line MIDI card and in a nice performance hall with good acoustics.
With the music so weak, Cube-E’s strength is forced to lie in the voice of The Singing Resident. (Sorry, Aila.) His voice proves its versatility here, giving the plaintive cowboy ballads of Buckaroo Blues the right dose of melancholy. If only Black Barry was as well performed. The Singing Resident is perfectly capable of growling and being intelligible, but the tracks end up being full of unintelligible growling. “Forty-Four” is victimized badly. I’m more familiar with the rehash it gets on Our Finest Flowers, which gives it a treatment that’s actually understandable. Then there’s act three, the Elvis stuff. See my previous review for my opinion on that. In short, it’s Elvis covers, and they are not very good. Thankfully, the Elvis portion is much abbreviated.
Cube-E: Live in Holland is worth acquiring if only just to have Buckaroo Blues. There was a cassette release of the Buckaroo Blues and Black Barry portions of the show, but the sound quality is, at best, sub par. Cube-E: Live in Holland is also worth tracking down for the 8 minute “Ober” that leads into the Elvis portion, which manages to transcend its MIDI-ness and make something surprisingly lush and gorgeous, incorporating themes from “Also sprach Zarathustra,” “Santa Dog,” “Double Shot,” and Mark of the Mole. Whether one-third of an album’s worth of good material is worth throwing down for is up to you.
Rev. Syung Myung Me: When I mentioned The King & Eye being forgettable, this is what I mean. I tend to think of Cube-E as the album from this period. That’s not to say it’s great — Buckaroo Blues is, but Black Barry and The Baby King are not. Honestly, I’m kind of surprised the Residents didn’t release the UWEB-only CD of Buckaroo Blues as the REAL album, and have King & Eye be the fanclub only release only got by the die-hards. I guess they thought Elvis covers would be an easier sell than the cowboy stuff… despite showing on Stars & Hank Forever just how good the Residents are at said cowboy stuff.
Black Barry is the worst segment, which is sad, as it has a lot of potential. As Rich mentions, “44” is great on Our Finest Flowers, but here it’s just… garbled shouting. As are ALL of the Black Barry songs. Honestly, I don’t know what the Residents were thinking on this one. Perhaps they had the idea first, and then realized they didn’t have the chops to pull it off? I don’t know. But the idea of showing how pop music and rock and roll today is the combination of cowboy music and slave spirituals is great — it’s just baffling that they decided to take an under-represented in popular culture aspect of our musical history and just make it… well, garbled shouting.
And, well, Baby King has “Ober” (which is awesome) and is much shorter than King and Eye, so uh, it’s got that? I don’t know. Cube-E is such an AWESOME idea for a show, but in execution… I just wish they hadn’t lost interest in doing the God in Three Persons stage-show and/or film and/or whatever other ideas they had for it. That material was SO MUCH stronger.
Aila: I didn’t know what to expect before listening to Cube E, but it ended up seeming like ‘what I expected’ anyway, somehow. One of the things doing these Residents reviews has revealed for me is something which I feel should perhaps be a dirty secret in this context, but what the hell: I don’t really like The Residents very much. I’m trying to be as neutral as possible, but almost every further album I listen to sours them a bit more for me. There have been some notable exceptions, but unfortunately this isn’t one of them.
This being a live album, I do have to give them a bit of credit for at least taking an interesting themed approach, that being the history of American music. It is of course done in their typically morose way, and I don’t think it’s particularly well executed, but it was a nice idea. It’s apparently broken into three sections: cowboy songs, slave songs, and (uh-oh) Elvis. The first two sections are definitely strongest for me, but I didn’t find a lot that stood out to be honest. It actually started out reasonably well for me, “The Theme From Buckaroo Blues” in particular seemed promising, but it just kind of lingered after that. The music in much of the middle part of the album is very nice, as in “Organism” and “Ober,” but it sounds kind of canned (I’m guessing most of it was sequenced, but I don’t really know). I can’t help but feel it would be slightly disappointing to see a live show of mostly canned music performed by some guys in masks, but I’m obviously not really the target audience. There is of course the vocal element which is obviously live, but if you’ve seen any of my previous reviews you’ll know I’m not very fond of the main vocalist, to say the least. He pretty much sounds exactly the same in a live setting. The last section of the show is dedicated to Elvis covers and material from The King and Eye. It was awful on The King and Eye, and frankly it’s even worse here.
Cube E is not intended for me. If you are a real fan of the Residents, you’ll probably like this. If you’re not a fan, you’re going to hate it. If you’re undecided, I don’t think this is likely to sway you. I would recommend it to hardcore fans of the band, because the idea behind the show was at least cool, and (unless I’m mistaken) some of the material is exclusive to this release, but it’s obviously not a great starting point for anyone and probably not even a great representation of a live Residents show. Just my opinion obviously, but my thoughts on this can be summed up with a single utterance: meh.