Review: Demons Dance Alone

Cover of "Demons Dance Alone"
Cover of Demons Dance Alone

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:  The Residents rarely, if ever, made music that could be considered topical. The closest they’ve come was the anti-vivisection lyrics in “Santa Dog ’92”, or some of the religious overtones in God in Three Persons. The Residents are many things, but they are not an “issues” band. Because of this, if The Residents didn’t mention that Demons Dance Alone was written in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 through other channels, one might never make the connection at all. Demons Dance Alone is a melancholy series of songs on loss, tragedy, and fear. You won’t find any references to planes, towers, terrorism, or war in the lyrics.

It may not wear its inspiration on its sleeve, but Demons Dance Alone does reveal its melancholy nature on its album sleeve. The album is split into two parts, the second consisting only of the title track, and the first divided into three thematic suites: “Loss,” “Denial,” and “Three Metaphors.” These suits are interspersed among tracks of ambient sounds and the story of a man called “Tongue” whose tongue was long enough that “[h]e could clean his ears with it.” The real story of Tongue, however, is that every time he falls in love with a woman, she wastes away and dies. An apt metaphor for the album as a whole.

Musically, Demons Dance Alone is the lushest album in The Residents’ canon thus far. Some have described it as being the first Residents album since the 70s that sounds like an actual band and I have to agree. There’s some amazing live playing, particularly on the part of Nolan “N.” Cook, who finally gets his chance to show off his ability to make a guitar wail in otherworldly ways. His playing is all over the record, but used tactically. To point out every amazing guitar part would take up the entire review space, but I must at least single out “Life Would Be Wonderful,” “Neediness,” “Betty’s Body, ” and “Baja?” as examples.

It’s also one of the most lyrically sharp albums in The Residents canon. Matt’s spoken before about some of the lyrical beauty that slips into Residents songs, and Demons Dance Alone has this in spades. Only The Residents could imbue such deep meaning into songs that seems as silly as “Mickey Macaroni,” and “Make Me Moo,” and have them stand up against such darkly serious tracks as “The Car Thief,” “Honey Bear,” “The Beekeeper’s Daughter”—the last of these which will make sure you never hear the song “Jingle Bells” the same way again.

Demons Dance Alone is also the first Residents album released after I discovered the band—or, more accurately, just before I discovered the band. I heard two of the tracks, “Betty’s Body” and “Wolverines” on the compilation Petting Zoo. I was so taken by them that I had to track down the album. As much as I love Duck Stab!, The Commercial Album, and all of The Residents weird, early classics, Demons Dance Alone is the album that made me a fan for life. For me, it stands behind only God in Three Persons as their best album. I wish I could say more, but sometimes you come across a record that’s so good that there’s little you can say about it that doesn’t come off as redundant. Make it a point to put this album on. Try not to cry.

Rev. Syung Myung Me:  This is easily one of the classics of the Residents’ canon.  This is ESSENTIAL.  I’m tempted to say that it’s not just essential for Residents fans, but for music fans in general.  The concept gels, the music is magnificent, and it’s just a really outstanding record.

It’s interesting too — Rich is right that without the Residents mentioning it, you probably wouldn’t know that it was written as a response to 9/11… but knowing that you can really see some of the particular allusions.  Songs like “The Weatherman” and “Wolverines” are pretty obvious in their connection — but the theme of the album is about loss, not terrorism.  It’s the human side of what happens when something awful happens, that looking for meaning and connection with others. The Residents are often best when they explore emotions, and this is perhaps the pinnacle.

I was lucky enough to catch them on this tour too — and it was an absolutely amazing show; one of the best concerts I’d ever been to.  There were a couple of non-album versions of “Mr. Wonderful” (a/k/a “Life Would Be Wonderful”), including one from the point of view of the singing Resident himself.  During this song, he told a moving story about meeting James Brown twice — once in Shreveport as a teenager, helping him get back on the highway, and again as an adult, telling him that story that meant so much to him but wasn’t remembered at all by James Brown; as the Resident put it, “just another day on the road for him”.  (It should be noted that at certain venues, the members of the Cryptic Corporation, Hardy Fox and Homer Flynn, stood outside the doors, shaking people’s hands.)

This was perhaps the most interesting thing about the Demons Dance Alone project — it really seemed like the Residents were trying to CONNECT.  The singing Resident’s wedding band was clearly visible when performing live, and between the story and, well, the rest of the show, it really felt like the Residents were actually trying to peel back their hard-earned anonymity a bit, and let their fans in a little.  I remember thinking back when the album came out, wondering if it was the end of the Residents, or the end of the anonymity.  (Spoiler: It wasn’t.  Though, one could draw parallels from this to later projects like The Bunny Boy where the singing Resident performed on video and stage unmasked, or the current “lineup” of “Randy, Chuck and Bob”.)

It should also, unfortunately, be noted that the home video release The Residents: Demons Dance Alone DVD was awful — they made a terrible DVD of one of the most moving shows I’d seen by, well, mostly not filming the show.  Lots of stuff with the camera wandering around backstage and occasionally looking at the stage… from the back, so we’d see scintillating shots of the back of the guitarist’s guitar neck.  Coupled with terribly muddy sound, this is definitely skip-able.  Sadly, I think the full album of Demons Dance Alone is out of print, so that might be the only available version of the project, which is a travesty.  The album is so essential, it deserves to be in print forever.  An album as important as that should be available always.

Aila:  2002′s Demons Dance Alone is one of only a few Residents albums I would voluntarily go back and listen to, and enjoy. With a few caveats, it might even be the best Residents album I’ve heard. Honestly, it’s no small feat considering it comes about 30 years into the band’s career.

Like most of The Residents’ work, this is another concept album. This time it’s themed around the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. I didn’t notice a whole lot of coherence in terms of the theme (I’m sure that would take a few more listens to get the full picture), but it doesn’t really matter. What matters here is that the songs are, by and large, amongst the band’s best work. The female vocalist they employ on this record [Molly Harvey - ed.] makes quite a difference too, I find those songs to be much more listenable than the band’s standard fare. Strangely for me, I even found myself enjoying quite a few of the songs lead by the Residents main singer, such as “My Brother Paul.” Other highlights on the 30-track album include “Life Would Be Wonderful,” “Sleepwalker,” “Mickey Macaroni,” “Ghost Child,” and “The Weatherman.” Which isn’t to say it’s perfect for me – a couple songs (“Honey Bear” for one) just seemed to annoy me like so much of the rest of the band’s work. And while the poor production quality that accompanied the band’s work throughout the better part of the previous decade has largely been left behind, it does rear it’s ugly head on a few of songs. The instrumental tracks that end the second disc, for instance, are pretty underwhelming. Cut out half the tracks and this is certainly the band’s best record in my mind. [Aila had the limited edition, two-CD release; the second disc is primarily composed of instrumental demo versions of most of the songs from the album.  Someone, mainly me, forgot to tell her that just the first CD was the real album. - Ed.] As it is, it might be on par with Eskimo for me, which was my previous overall favorite.

In the end, Demons Dance Alone was a pleasant surprise for me. I don’t think it’s going to make me love the rest of the band’s oeuvre, but it’s a rare case of The Residents living up to my original expectations for the band. It’s near the top of a very short list of Residents albums that I personally found enjoyable on first listen. This is a very good record, and I would recommend it to just about anyone who has the slightest bit of interest.

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  • TommyTopHat

    It was when I listened to the song Make Me Moo from this album that I realised the Residents are my favourite band of all time. They can express complex emotions so sincerly, in such a strange way that few others could hope to match.