Review: Gingerbread Man

Cover of "Gingerbread Man"
Cover of Gingerbread Man

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’re of a certain age, you remember when everyone was going nuts over the brand-new, interactive technology that would utterly change the world. It would bring knowledge, entertainment, and art to people who never had access to it. It would utterly transform music, movies, and books. No longer disparate entities, these would combine into something new, a “multimedia” experience that would redefine culture. I speak, of course, of the CD-ROM. Until 1997, when people suddenly discovered that we had this thing called the Internet, and the World Wide Web, the CD-ROM was the future, and plenty of them were spewed out onto an unsuspecting market. Bands and musicians, particularly the more visually oriented ones, embraced the format. Among them: Yes, Queen, DEVO, Laurie Anderson, and The Residents. In fact, The Residents embraced the format moreso than others, releasing three multimedia CD-ROM projects, of which Gingerbread Man was the first.

The concept behind Gingerbread Man is very similar to the Freak Show album. It’s ten musical portraits of extremely fucked up people, such as a regretful oilman dying of cancer, a burned out rock musician, or a lonely elderly woman concerned about who would take care of her plants if she died. On the original release of the album, each song was paired with a CG animation depicting the character as it delivers its musical number. Each song features a short lyrical component, and then slides into a spoken word, in-character rant. It’s those rambling rants that make me really despise this record. Maybe it works better with the visuals, but my copy doesn’t have them. Most of spoken parts are uninteresting at best, or outright annoying at worst—that is when they’re even intelligible. It makes every song feel at least twice as long as their running time, which is a pretty neat trick as the whole entire disc is only 37 minutes of music.

There’s scarcely anything about the music that sticks in your head, good or bad, except the reoccurring “Gingerbread Man” melody that appears in every song, and gets terribly annoying about halfway though the record. It is amusing, however, to hear a character talking about “play[ing] real music” versus “this computer crap” on an album of primarily computer-based music. I suspect, once again, The Residents were more caught up in the concept and the multimedia experience than in making actually interesting music. One good thing about Gingerbread Man is that it’s the first album to feature long-term collaborator Molly Harvey, whose vocals would utterly redefine The Residents sound for the next decade. The album doesn’t really show off her vocals to a great degree, we’ll have to wait for Wormwood for that. As for Gingerbread Man, well, skip it. Honestly, I’m just glad we only have one more of the “Multimedia Era” albums to do before things get good again.

Gingerbread Man (album)
Gingerbread Man (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rev. Syung Myung Me:  I was first exposed to Gingerbread Man on the Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses compilation, where for certain albums (and all of them on the European 4-CD edition), the Residents cut together 10-or-so minute “Concentrates”, basically enough to give an idea of the record.  It’s kind of an interesting idea for a greatest hits type of compilation for a band as concept-album heavy as the Residents. And, as it turned out, I really liked the Gingerbread Man concentrate.  I also knew that this album was far from a fan-favorite.  I couldn’t quite reconcile these two pieces of information.  Perhaps the general consensus was wrong?

Nope.  As it turns out, 10 minutes is about the ideal length for this album.  Like Rich, I’ve only had the CD-Audio version of the album, never the animated/interactive portions, so maybe it’s like, SO MUCH BETTER with that stuff.  In which case, it’s a crime that the CD-ROM version continues to be out of print.  But as a record?  Yeah, it’s way too monotonous.  The “Gingerbread Man” motif, a nice link in the concentrate, becomes boring and annoying in a full album.

Some of the individual tracks are pretty good (I do enjoy Todd Rundgren’s guest vocal on “The Sold-Out Artist”), making me think that it’s a mixtape-ideal album…. except for those damn monologues.  You put that on a mixtape, people’ll wonder if you’ve slipped a cog.

This one is just… frustrating.  Maybe as a CD-ROM it’s awesome.  But as an album, it just seems like something both intended to be listened to in bite-size pieces, but weirdly ill-suited for that, too.  Just go ahead and listen to the concentrate.  It’s quicker and more enjoyable.

Aila:  What is the point of Gingerbread Man? It seems to be an inferior sequel to Freak Show. Granted, Freak Show was one of the better Residents records I’ve heard from this period, but it still strikes me as a bit strange. While it’s not directly about a ‘Freak Show,’ the feel of Gingerbread Man seems pretty similar and familiar (although I’m not entirely certain what it’s about, if I’m honest), and it doesn’t add a whole lot of note.

The album is very dark, both in terms of theme and the sound of the music. If I’ve got one thing to recommend, the production is pretty tight and it doesn’t sound as ‘cheap’ as some of the other Residents output of this era. Strangely, the entire album seems to be built around one hook basically. It is a decent hook and decent music is built around it, but despite the very ‘decent’ quality of the music it’s all a bit dour for my tastes. The Residents do creepy music well, and I suppose from that standpoint alone this is a success. I also didn’t mind the vocals, insofar as they were a bit more mixed up than usual. The main vocalist (who seems to always be my least favorite part of a Residents album) takes a backseat for much of the record. Easily the best and most interesting song on the album, “The Aging Musician,” even features vocals from Todd Rundgren, which seems like a bit of an odd marriage but it works fairly well. Other than that, it’s difficult to find anything I’d really want to listen to again. None of it’s awful, it’s just not very interesting. I am of course missing the entire CD-ROM element of the album, which was how it was originally released and intended, so this is based entirely on the music and songs. I suspect the CD-ROM content would seem rather dated and unimpressive at this point anyway.

Gingerbread Man is completely superfluous in my opinion. It’s not terrible, but as an album they do something very similar and better with Freak Show. I imagine this is probably a decent offering for a hardcore Residents fan, but for someone like me it doesn’t have a lot to offer. Mediocre at best.

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