Review: Freak Show

Freak Show/Freak Show Soundtrack
Freak Show/Freak Show Soundtrack (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!

Richard J. Anderson:  Freak Show was The Residents return to more interesting, less meta concept albums. It’s a series of portraits of various freak show freaks—a disembodied head that lives forever in Formaldehyde, a human mole, the armless and legless worm woman, and so on. There’s even a song about a spectator who freaks out the freaks. It’s not a new theme in the Residents canon. “Loss of Innocence” off The Commercial Album touches on freak shows, and was used as part of some later live performances of the album’s material.

Well regarded work among Residents fans, Freak Show is considered to be a return to form after the Cube-E project. I can’t say I agree. It’s not terrible, but in my mind, this is the start of the worst period of Residents releases. I consider this period to be more disappointing than the post-Mole Trilogy/pre-God in Three Persons period. Freak Show is, by far, the best of The Residents’s early 90s material, but the seeds are there for the disappointment of the next few albums. Whether I like it or not, Freak Show was successful and The Residents milked this franchise for all it was worth. There was a multimedia CD-ROM version, a live stage show (performed by a Czech orchestra and actual stage actors, and none of The Residents), a graphic novel that included an EP of excised material called “Blowoff,” and then the two-disc expanded special edition of the album.

Musically, the album is a refinement of the cheesy Macintosh MIDI music the had done with The King & Eye. Despite this, the first two cuts on the album, “Everyone Comes to the Freak Show” and “Harry the Head” surpass their bland sonic palate to become classics in my book. After that, everything just falls apart into a mess. I do, however, love some of the lyrics in the album’s closer, “Nobody Laughs When They Leave”:

We are only equal in the grave and in the dark

Said a man whose head was halfway eaten by a shark

Now if you ask me why I would continue on like this

I doubt that I would know so I could only make a guess

Half a mouth may not be much but it’s still half a kiss.

If the rest of the songwriting and music were half as brilliant as those five lines, we’d have an amazing album. Instead, we have this mediocre record of mediocrity that sets off a long period of boring music, interactive multimedia nonsense, and forgetting what makes The Residents’ music so compelling in the first place.

Rev. Syung Myung Me:  I am sorry to report the fact that Rich is out and out wrong.  Perhaps he was hit in the head?  Perhaps he is ONLY A HEAD and thus “Harry the Head” hits too close to home, but is catchy enough he feels he must single it out as a good track regardless?  I do not know.

Freak Show is an outstanding album.  The lines he quoted are amongst my favorite lyrics ever written by anybody — but for me, the entire record is great.  “Lillie” is one of my favorite songs in the Residents’ canon, even.  For me, while they still have the MIDI stuff, they’ve finally realized to flesh it out with other stuff to make it not sound so tinny and sparse.

I do agree that this era of the Residents’ output is a bit patchy — Gingerbread Man is stronger in concept (and in concentrated form on Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses) than in execution, and, well, Have a Bad Day just doesn’t leave an impression at all.  (NB:  I have not played ANY of the Residents CD-ROMs, so I’m approaching these next entries as music ONLY.  Though I do have the Freak Show comic book and love it — particularly Richard Sala’s entry on “Herman the Human Mole”.)  But I think of Freak Show as a worthy successor to God in Three Persons, and these two albums are so strong, I tend to mentally extend that era… even though, as it turns out, it’s only two albums, really.  With a shitty one in the middle.  Power of the mind, I guess.

Still, Rich and I have to agree to disagree.  Not only is this one of my favorite Residents albums, this is one I tend to recommend as a starter album.  Is it as strong as God in Three Persons?  That one, I’ll have to say “no” — but just because God in Three Persons is a bona fide masterpiece.  Freak Show isn’t quite — it’s just a damn fine record.

Aila:  Freak Show isn’t a terrible record. It has some major drawbacks, but I like this one more than a lot of what I’ve heard from the band at this point. It’s not one that made me want to metaphorically punch the band in it’s eyeballsy face, at least.

Although my opinion of The Residents has been mixed at best, they certainly do at least one thing well: the concept album. The vast majority of their albums appear to be concept records, and this is no exception. That said, it’s not exactly high concept here, it’s basically just about an old carnival-style freak show and the ‘acts’ that inhabit it, as the title would suggest. So, it’s kind of simple on that level, but it’s actually a setup that appeals to me. I’d previously heard one of these songs as it appeared on Louisiana’s Lick, that being “Harry The Head,” and it is one of the strongest tracks on the album. The overall standout for me is probably “Lillie,” although most of the ‘character’ songs are relatively strong. The only songs that aren’t based on single subjects, “Everyone Comes To The Freak Show” and “Nobody Laughs When They Leave,” bookend the album and are alright but kind of predictable and nothing special. The lyrical content and the storytelling are definitely the strongest points of this album. I also like the fact it doesn’t rely on the main vocalist so much for the singing, and when he does appear he isn’t as annoying as often to my ears (I do understand not everyone finds him annoying anyway, though). Where this album really falls down is the music. Not that the music is especially bad, in fact it’s often quite good. It just sounds cheap. Really cheap. Like canned midi music. So in terms of production, this is pretty much a failure. If they had used instruments that were appropriate, like acoustic instruments or at least sounds that might have seemed to go with carnival freak shows, this would have been much better. Even just a different mix or recording technique might have made a big difference. I probably would have even considered it a good album, despite my trend of increasing misgivings about The Residents in general. As it is, it’s “somewhat decent” in my opinion.

Freak Show is kind of a shame, to be honest. I do basically think it’s ok, and even outside of the context of The Residents, I almost like it. But it could have been so much better. It’s a bit of a letdown. I like the idea of the album much, much more than the album itself. I kind feel the same way about the band. To me, if The Residents were a person, they would be someone who seemed like a brilliant child or teenager headed to Harvard, but they ended up going to a community college in Pittsburgh while moonlighting as a fry cook. This one gets an ‘B+’ for the idea, and a ‘D’ for the execution. Needs more salt.

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