Review: The Voice of Midnight

Cover of "Voice of Midnight"
Cover of Voice of Midnight

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:  In the early 70s, when The Residents were still coalescing as an act, they performed a spoken word piece called “Sandman,” a recording of which exists on the (in)famous unreleased Baby Sex album. The poem has next to nothing to do with The Voice of Midnight except for the “Sandman” connection, and the companion bonus disc titled The Sandman Waits, the first line of the poem.

The Voice of Midnight is an updated retelling of the short story “Der Sandmann” by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Nate, a stressed college student, is convinced that not only was his father murdered by The Sandman, but that a man running a bookshop on campus is the man as well. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Claire, ever rational and level-headed, tries to convince him that he’s nuts. That’s the basic outline, at least. There’s a bit of side-plot with a college professor, his “shy” daughter, the store owner, and Nate’s paranoia. To provide more details would utterly spoil the whole thing.

Structurally, The Voice of Midnight is a mix of spoken word and occasional sung bits, mostly by actors who appeared in The River of Crime!. The Singing Resident appears from time to time as “The Sandman” in a creepy whisper, often low in the mix. It’s a compelling listen, and the story is handled adeptly, which would make sense as it’s an adaptation, so it’s hard to screw up something like that. Musically, it’s 2000s Residents by-the-numbers, which isn’t a bad thing. The altered version of “Beautiful Dreamer” in the middle of the record alternates between sincere beauty and sinister creepiness in the way only The Residents can. Also, careful listeners will pick up a reference to “Birthday Boy” from Duck Stab! as well.

Apparently, Voice of Midnight isn’t beloved by fans. I have to admit, it’s not my favorite album, even of the Storyteller-era, but it’s solid. Not a pleasant or upbeat listen, but still a good one. Unlike The River of Crime it manages to balance story and music quite well. It’s one step to the apex of this period, The Bunny Boy, which we’ll get to in time. If you can get past the lack of Resident-vocals (which probably doesn’t break Aila’s heart), this is a worthwhile listen. And, yes, there’s an instrumental version too.

Rev. Syung Myung Me:  The Voice of Midnight is kind of odd for me — when I first got it and listened to it, I loved it, and even gave it as gifts to people, just based on the strength of the poetry.  The Residents are great at lyrics, and The Voice of Midnight is no exception to that rule.

But it’s also an album that — opposite to the way it normally goes — I’ve grown to dislike.  Instead of growing on me, it’s grown off me.  And there’s a very obvious reason — the non-Residents vocals.  It’s not the voices themselves, they’re perfectly fine.  The problem is that the Resident is the only one who knows how to act.  Nate (played by Corey Rosen, according to the press release) is the worst offender, with all of his lines delivered in that “I am acting NOW?” cadence, which really removes me from the story.  He doesn’t sound remotely natural, and it just ends up being more and more irritating as the album goes on.  The Resident is the only one who sounds like he’s his character and not just someone playacting for their friends.

And don’t get me wrong — acting is HARD.  The few times I’ve done it, I’ve had a tendency to fall into that trap too.  It’s hard to not only read something but make it sound like it’s your own feelings/emotions/reactions to what’s going on right this second.  It’s why there aren’t more voice actors out there — or, at least, ones who are used a lot.  It’s why folks like Tara Strong, Maurice LaMarche or Jeff Bennett are in EVERYTHING — they have a precise skill set they do amazingly well.  Unfortunately, Corey Rosen will not be joining their ranks anytime soon.  (That said, aside from River of Crime, I’ve not found anything else that Rosen has worked on — so I’m thinking he’s a Residential friend that got roped in to the production.)

I saw a review by Mark Prindle that agrees with me about Rosen sinking the album, but I do disagree with him about his suggestion that the Resident should have taken the role of Nate himself.  I don’t think that would have worked — the Resident is too old for the role and it would have been as off-putting as a subpar actor.  The Resident would have brought the full depth and pathos to the role, but it’d just be… odd… hearing a grandpa-type voice being a college student, nor do I think the story could have been rewritten to explain the protagonist’s advanced age; Nate is very much a young-person’s role — it’s just a pity they didn’t find a young person with more acting chops.

Cover of "The Ughs!"
Cover of The Ughs!

I do find it kind of interesting that this spawned off a few mostly instrumental discs, too — there’s the companion EP, The Sandman Waits (including a couple vocal tracks of “Mister Sandman” and “Fly Me To The Moon”), plus The Ughs! (the improvisations that The Voice of Midnight was based off of) and Voiceless Midnight, the actual backing tracks/soundtrack to the album.

My initial love of the album makes me want to recommend it to hear at least once.  The story and music is really interesting and enjoyable — and if you can get swept up in it, you can hopefully accept or embrace Rosen’s readings of Nate.  The Voice of Midnight doesn’t suffer from any content issues — just performance.

Aila:  The Voice Of Midnight is yet another in an absurdly long line of concept albums by The Residents. Like a lot of the band’s catalog, I didn’t find it to be particularly enjoyable.

Rather than the band’s typical format of poorly thought-out original stories to base their concept albums on, this one is based on the well-established twisted German tale, “The Sandman.” It’s also different than the majority of their past works in that it uses an almost spoken word (with accents of singing) radio-play format, similar to the format on The River Of Crime, which was produced shortly before this one. The story is the same as the original, although more emphasis is placed on the question of whether or not The Sandman is in fact real, and appropriately (given the band) the sinister desire for eyeballs. Mercifully, the band’s main singer is used sparingly on this one, although the vocal performances of the main spoken word parts are pretty lousy in any case. To give credit where it’s due, the main singer’s vocals are actually appropriate for the creepy character of The Sandman. On the technical side, the music itself is often barely acceptable, and it’s produced in a way that sounds far too clean and empty for what they seem to have been attempting. Only in small segments of the relatively long track “True Love” did anything really catch my attention. For the most part, this whole record was a snooze. I suppose if you have an intense interest in the original German story (does anyone, really?) or are a truly die-hard Residents fan, this might be somewhat enjoyable, but I can’t imagine anyone thinking it’s in any way remarkable.

The Residents seem to have put out far too many albums in recent years, and The Voice Of Midnight is a good example of this. Had they taken the practically spoken-word story format of this and a couple of their other recent works and focused their energy they might have come up with something great, instead of spreading themselves far too thin. Not even the fear of an eyeball-eating monster should stop anyone from falling asleep while this album is playing.

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4 comments

  1. Adam

    So deeply enjoying these. Gratifying stuff and there are a couple of albums that I’d assumed not so interesting (Residents Deux, for instance) that I will now attempt to get my mitts on.

    Any chance of doing the same for The Legendary Pink Dots at some point? (I guess I consider them the British/ Dutch Residents, in the way that Picky Picnic are the Japanese Residents!!)

    • Rev. Syung Myung Me

      Glad you’re digging them!

      As for the LPD, that’s a pretty good idea — though I know I personally don’t have the background! I’ve only got a couple LPD albums, but they do seem to be pretty awesome — and now I’m curious about Picky Picnic, whom I’ve never heard of! (I do have a soft spot for Japanese bands. F’rinstance, POLYSICS are one of my favorites, and they’re called the Japanese DEVO… by DEVO themselves!)

      • Adam

        Picky Picnic are just glorious! They were short lived, so it’s easy to get hold of all of their output. Their original cassette ‘Picnic Land’ is wonderful, as is their one official album ‘Haha Tarachine!’ They sound a little like a group of sugared-up school kids attempting a Residents tribute band, but without the melancholy and raging emasculation!

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwyuKAhjp50

        I associate the LPD with the Residents due to my discovering the former through watching fan-made Residents videos by a guy called Virgil Pink, who also makes a lot of fan videos for the Dots. I don’t know if you’ve watched any, but some of them work remarkable well.

        http://www.youtube.com/user/therezident/search?query=residents

        Hope you enjoy! Do please let me know what you think! :D

  2. Pingback: The Sparks Project - Review: The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman - Kittysneezes

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