Review: Coochie Brake

Coochie Brake cover
Coochie Brake

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:  Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that The Residents, at least according to legend, came from Louisiana and didn’t just pop up in San Francisco out of nowhere. Of course, Randy’s southern drawl often is reminder enough that The Residents aren’t just a California thing. Though geography plays a role in The Residents mythology, rarely has it ever been a part of the music. “Death in Barstow” is the only example that comes to mind.

Coochie Brake, where our album gets its title, is a real place. It’s a cypress swamp in Louisiana, apparently not far from The Residents’ ancestral home of Shreveport. Coochie Brake was supposedly a place of mystical import to The Residents. According to the liner notes, as teenagers, they would camp out in Coochie Brake, and it would speak to them, inspiring them. Just over forty years later, they decided to pay tribute to this inspirational place in an album.

Musically, it’s a more laid back version of the contemporary Residents sound, full of electronic textures and searing guitar by N. Cook/Bob. It sometimes has a feel of The Residents doing Ennio Morricone. What sets Coochie Brake apart is that it’s not Randy singing. For this disc, The Residents have been rejoined by Carlos, their former drummer, who split to Mexico to take care of his sick mother. Carlos delivers Spanish-language vocals on the album, giving the whole thing a fresh and different vocal sound. If the sound of Randy’s voice does not work for you, perhaps this might be a way in. Where’s Randy? Supposedly, this was recorded while he was working on his Sam’s Enchanted Evening performance piece, though a suspiciously Randy-esque voice pops in occasionally.

What is Carlos singing? Or, more often, murmuring and chanting? I don’t know. I don’t speak Spanish. (And, there’s no lyric sheets.) What I do know is that this isn’t a Residents album that grabs me. It’s very deep, very dark, very rich, and borderline impenetrable for me. The Residents modern work is often rich and deep, but there’s usually something for me to grab onto, be it the story, the sounds, or just the sheer lunacy of the concept. This album fills the air between my headphones and my ears, and it somehow fails to land. But, I don’t blame the record, I blame myself.

Coochie Brake Special Edition Cover
Coochie Brake Special Edition Cover

Rev. Syung Myung Me:  Like Rich, Coochie Brake is an album that, if asked, I would say I liked, but unfortunately, I never have any memory of it.  To borrow the phrase from Crush On Radio, the album has hardly any stickiness.  If it weren’t for that, it might be one of the more accessible albums — it’s got some really cool atmospherics and would generally be a pretty good electronica-type album, if… it had any staying power whatsoever.  And yet, there’s nothing I can really point to that I don’t like about it.  It’s very strange — and yet, it’s one of the most conventional Residents albums yet.  I suppose that in itself makes it strange.  

Like Rich, I don’t know Spanish — but the Residents have said that that’s part of the point of the Spanish vocals.  They know the majority of their listeners don’t know the language, so they wanted to explore the use of vocals as another instrument — but unlike with The Big Bubble, they wanted to hint that there IS content there.  We know that Mohelmot is a fake, made-up language, and there’s no drive to figure out what they’re saying there.  Spanish, on the other hand, for a non-Spanish speaker, adds mystery — we know there’s content there, just content that’s generally locked away from us.  

Still, and I can’t quite explain why it is, but Coochie Brake as a whole remains locked away from me as well.  The story alongside the special edition of the album about the West and Kimbrell Clan doesn’t really seem to illuminate anything for me, and I seem to remember some stuff about a snake-handling preacher seemingly modelled on Marjoe Gortner?  (My physical copy of the album is archived somewhere in my parents’ house, so this is mostly from confused memory and may be wrong.  But it came with some postcards with stories on them.  And I remember going “Huh, these are good stories”.  But, like with the album, I apparently can’t remember much of anything about them.)  I want to like Coochie Brake a lot more than I do… or dislike it, or something, but instead I just have this big “???” in my brain when I think of it, even when I listen to it.

Aila:  It was three in the morning and I was strolling through the graveyard, as I tend to do. Since Halloween would be here in weeks, I thought I should check it out every once in a while, in case there was a Monster Mash or something. I’ve never been lucky in that regard, but on this particular night I witnessed something even more terrifying. As I walked past the grave marked “RESIDENTS” I briefly stopped to spit on it, something of a ritual on my graveyard walks. “That felt great!” I said to no-one, before turning to continue my walk. Before I got a chance, a chill took hold of me. I looked down and saw a decomposing finger rising out of the ground. Then an arm, what looked to be a tuxedoed body, and a giant eyeball head. They were back. The Residents just won’t die. The rest of them emerged as well, and I was tempted to leave before I remembered my bargain with the devil: I was to review each and every Residents album. I don’t remember what I was getting in return, but a deal’s a deal. “Oh well, I might as well stick around and listen to the new ghoulish howls,” I said. One of them spoke back, but it was in Spanish and I don’t understand that very well, but I think I made out the words “Coochie Brake” before they produced an old Victrola record player from ground. They were going to play me their album Coochie Brake in full, and I was going to have to stand there and listen to it. Fuck.

Luckily, Coochie Brake is mostly instrumental, aside from some Spanish vocals, most of which are spoken. This makes it reasonably tolerable, and in fact I have to admit there were some moments I didn’t completely hate. “Gotta Believe,” for instance, is an enjoyable composition with some shouty Spanish language bantering over it. Without the babbling, it would have been a decent tune. Notably, the vocalist on this album doesn’t seem to be the same annoying one who is on most of the Residents albums. Most of the tracks are appropriate for graveyard listening, having a somewhat spooky aura to them – which isn’t unique for Residents songs, but it’s a little different here, and consistent. The album starts fairly strong, drags and gets more annoying in the middle, and fizzles by the end. I can’t imagine listening to it often (even if I were a fan), but this is one of the least offensive offerings from the group in recent times. There are some seriously rancid turds scattered amongst the predominant mediocrity though – “Outside the Fence” describes the experience of listening to it with some of the album’s only English (and most annoying) vocals: “why me?” The production quality of Coochie Brake is decent throughout – thankfully they seem to have fixed the problem that plagued them for over a decade, starting in the late 80s and lasting well over a decade. A lot of the tracks are forgettable, a few of them are worse than forgettable, and there are a couple that are kind of successful even to my ears. The aforementioned “Gotta Believe,” along with “Tied to a Cactus,” are the highlights for me. I can really do without the rest of it, but that’s true of most of the Residents, if I’m honest.

After the old Victrola’s needle ran off the record and I had finished listening to Coochie Brake, the Residents appeared to be ready to make their way from the graveyard and back to civilization. I had no choice but to shoot them all in the head (I mean eye), and put them back into their collective grave. “Phew! That was close!” I said. I had a pretty harrowing experience at the graveyard that night, but I’m glad The Residents can’t hurt anyone ever again. As a great poet once said: “Rise from the dead once, shame on you. Rise from the dead twice, can’t rise from the dead again.” Right? Right.

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