Review: Our Finest Flowers

Our Finest Flowers
Our Finest Flowers (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:  I seem to remember being extremely disappointed with Our Finest Flowers on first listen. I don’t know why. It might have just been the terrible quality MP3s I had. After all, it’s not like this is one of the abysmal multimedia projects The Residents put out in the early 90s. Musically, it’s all a bunch of MIDI stuff, yes, but it’s not really as atrociously bad as the last couple MIDI-based albums. Even the concept is pretty neat. This was an album The Residents made to celebrate their 20th Anniversary, and according to the Cryptic Corporation, the band’s handlers, it was intended to be straight up re-recordings of their classic songs until one Resident vomited on the song list. Somehow, Residential vomit had the effect of scrambling up the titles on the list, and so they got the bright idea to record mashups of their old songs instead.

The other reason I may not have enjoyed Our Finest Flowers as much the first time is that it’s one of those records best suited to hardcore fans. As I’ve worked my way chronologically through The Residents’ discography, I’m hearing the mashed up parts more distinctly and appreciating the results on their own merits. Take the opener, “Gone Again,” combining expanded lyrics from “Loss of Innocence,” off The Commercial Album with the melody of Eskimo’s “The Walrus Hunt.” It works surprisingly well. Our Finest Flowers even saves a few Residents tracks that would have otherwise been considered absolute crap in my book. “The Sour Song” recycles the brilliant lyrics to “Vinegar” off The Big Bubble, while “Forty-Four no More” is a redo of “Forty-Four” from Black Barry.

The Residents also recycle some of the songs they did with the late Snakefinger, combining “The Man in the Dark Sedan” with “Happy Home” off Tunes of Two Cities, and “Golden Goat” with “Perfect Love” off The Commercial Album. “Picnic in the Jungle” gets used twice, once with the Renaldo & the Loaf collaboration “Monkey and Bunny” on “Jungle Bunny” and on “Kick a Picnic” combined with “Aircraft Damage” from the original Santa Dog 7-inch. It’s a lovely tribute to someone who had a huge impact on The Residents sound, and (except for “Perfect Goat”) make for some of the best cuts on the album.

Of course, just because it’s better than I remember doesn’t mean it’s all that good. A lot of the songs end up as dull, mid-tempo dirges, and I found myself forgetting most of them as soon as they were done. I actually had to go back and re-play “Gone Again” as I listened and wrote this, just to make sure I had the parts right. It’s also, yes, still MIDI music, though it doesn’t sound like it was assembled entirely of preset sounds. Yet, in the middle of the record, there’s plenty of dreck. The new cover of “Little Sister” from The King & Eye is still miserable, too. As far as The Residents early–90’s material goes, this is about as good as it gets, in my book. Grab it, once you’re acquainted with the earlier discography, if it compels you.

Postscript: The official Residents fan club, Uncle Willie’s Eyeball Buddies, or U-WEB, leaked information about this album before its release. The Residents were quite tight with U-WEB, and were none too happy to hear about this being released. In response, the club’s founder, the aforementioned “Uncle Willie” shut down the club rather than risk pissing off the band again. It’s considered by fans that the final track, “Be Kind to U-WEB Footed Friends” was put on as an apology from the band for their reaction.

Rev. Syung Myung Me:  Like Rich, I didn’t quite dig this album when I first got it — I didn’t have enough of the Residents’ output yet… and it doesn’t help (for a neophyte) that a fair number of the sources are from more obscure releases, like the original Santa Dog 45 set, Title in Limbo or Snakefinger’s albums.  I’ve got all those now (well, the audio from the Santa Dog set on Refused…though if someone would like to give me the original 45s, that’d be pretty neat), and I can appreciate it more.

I guess the 90s-MIDIness doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it does Rich; I enjoy this one.  I also find it funny that it seems that a few of these seem to be the canonical version now — the Residents will often play “Kick a Picnic” live and “Ship of Fools” seems to pop up from time to time.

I am generally pro-Our Finest Flowers, though I think it’s very much a fans-only release.  As good as some of the new songs are on their own merits, it seems that for the most part the fun is in the clever way they jammed songs through each other.  I could have done without the more-or-less straight covers, like “Little Sister” or “Be Kind To U-Web Footed Friends” (though “Forty-Four No More” is nice to have a decent version of a Black Barry song).  It’s not a perfect album, and the idea is probably better than the execution, but I think it’s generally enjoyable.  And the cover’s pretty cool, too.

Maddie:  Disclaimer: I am writing this without having listened to the album recently and on my phone. Forgiveness please.

Twenty years ago the Residents celebrated their 20th anniversary. It seems vaguely obscene to be saying that. The liner notes of Our Finest Flowers notes that only the Stones and the Dead have survived as long. The Dead didn’t get beyond 30 years and we can make a good case for the Stones being creatively dead for decades now.

What better way to celebrate than with a cash-in greatest hits album? Well, those don’t really work well with the Residents. The prospect grows more dismal when we learn that these are midi heavy re-recordings. They later re-recorded themselves with surround mixes for the Icky Flix DVD. It wasn’t worth the effort.

The Rez however manage to save what would have been a forgettable effort by applying a cut, mix and paste structure to it. Lines from songs and musical elements from others are re-appropriated and re-combined to create whole new songs. Even titles are stolen from unrelated songs.

The end result is probably something of a curate’s egg. I love trying to piece together the puzzle and despite misgivings about the midi sound, it does on occasion become greater than the sum of its parts. “Ship of Fools” is one of my favourite tracks by them.

I was going to say that it’s probably a very bad introduction to them and only appeals to long-term fans but if I had to pick an album from the 90s to start someone off with, it’d be this. Its lack of narrative or cumbersome “concept” make it perhaps easier to swallow. Here the concept IS the music. I really hope Aila doesn’t totally hate this one…

Aila:  If not for a few elements, Our Finest Flowers might be a contender for the best Residents album I’ve heard. The idea was a good one, and a lot of it worked pretty well.  It isn’t completely successful, but it’s better executed than most of the Residents albums I’ve listened to.

I do of course have a few complaints, and I might as well get them out of the way. First of all, the vocalist who annoys me so much is still there of course. That’s obvious. Second, I really don’t like a few of the tracks. “Jungle Bunny” is one of a few songs that I’d like to forget – if I ever take a hard knock to the head and forget a bunch of things – take this, please. Actually, you can have most of the surrounding songs as well. While you (the keeper of memory, I guess?) are at it, get rid of “Baby Sister” too, it’s the worst song on the album in my opinion, worse than the terrible song from The King and Eye it’s based on. I’m also not a big fan of certain elements of other songs, the obnoxious pitch-bended vocals on “Or Maybe A Marine” is one example. That’s pretty much the worst I can say about this record. A lot of these tracks have some seriously redeeming qualities. The most obvious thing for me right away was the music itself. Starting with the opening track “Gone Again,” things seem decidedly more punchy in terms of performance and production. I actually really like most of the musical side of things, which hadn’t been the case with so much of the band’s contemporary output. Also, the songs themselves are often surprisingly effective. Who would have thought that cannibalizing various past songs would have resulted in better songs? I guess The Residents did, and they were right. “The Sour Song,” “Kick A Picnic,” and “Ship Of Fools,” for example, are possibly a few of the best Residents tracks I’ve heard.

Our Finest Flowers was intended as an alternative to a 20th anniversary best-of compilation. It turned out to be a pretty good idea. Despite my recent gripes about the band, this is not a bad record. It’s probably not their absolute best, but it might even be a decent starting point for new listeners. If you can’t find anything to like about any of the tracks on this album, you probably won’t like any of The Residents. The fact that I was able to find several things I liked might mean that I don’t loathe them as much as I was starting to think I might.

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