The Residents release artifacts, not albums. Based out of San Francisco’s Bay Area, the Residents — a rotating cast of anonymous artists, most often costumed in tuxedos, top hats, and a giant eyeball covering each of their creative skulls — a pioneered the notion of accompanying the music with videos, CD-Rs, and DVDs. River of Crime is the band’s newest installment. Hardly musical, the series is a nostalgic take on old radio mysteries that were the source of entertainment for previous generations. Unbelievable that something so kitschy and atypical could be so entertaining for our ADD-drenched, visual-based culture, but it is. The episodes are mesmerizing, scored in a way that grabs the attention because of the eerie realness to the narrators’ voices, despite that the tales themselves are preposterous.
Much like an audio book, an embittered but enthusiastic grown male voice tells a story of crimes and their unshakable grasp. River of Crime is broken into ten “episodes” that the group released in pairs every other week between June 13 and August 8. It’s serial art much like the original form of classic novels. What separates this segmented attempt from what has been done in the past is the purchasing process. Buy River Of Crime as a packaged, blank CD-R that comes with nothing but an access code, continue to download each episode online as they are released over the course of five weeks, and then burn. Eureka! An album sort of.
The Residents have never been the “cut ‘n’ dry” kind. Narrative versus singing; melody versus white noise. How can popular culture harness the obsolete ability to listen without visuals? The premise seems awkward, but the narratives in River of Crime force themselves to the forefront, and with nothing but the imagination to accompany the tales, the ability to focus becomes innate. The events of September 11 accelerated the pace of the Residents’ response to culture, starting with 2002’s Demons Dance Alone. Everything thereafter, including River of Crime, spotlights our queerest attributes. “Didja know, one of the things we learn in life is that most fun is usually free from expectation,” says the humble narrator, “without the burden of anticipation. The things that ‘just happen’ are always the best.” What fascinates us about serial killers? Car accidents? Gruesome death?
The Residents manage to release records and art that tell stores in all three tenses. Combining lost elements of the past — such as scored, serial radio broadcasts — with current social commentary in a way that is so ahead of its time, the members continue to prove that they’re always miles ahead of everyone else. As odd and gloriously creepy as River of Crime is, it could very well be the band’s most significant yet. It’s accessible, intriguing, and quite possibly potentially appealing enough to attract a wider audience. Years from now, the legacy of the Residents will be a time capsule in and of itself, speaking volumes about our culture in ways that only the band members could see, through their four enormous eyeballs.