The Bay Area ensemble known as the Residents who -- even in live performance -- have never shown their faces, epitomizes the concept of enigmatic artistes. Formed in the early '70s, the Residents are grand American mavericks in the tradition of Raymond Scott, Frank Zappa, Charles Ives, and Harry Partch, all of whom influenced them to varying degrees. Their achievements have reached beyond music into the realm of multimedia (five of their videos are in the permanent collection of NYC's Museum of Modern Art). The Residents' Petting Zoo is an overview of their long and prolific career, presenting twenty short pieces spanning 1974 to 2002. The Residents forgo the usual verse/chorus/verse thing or long instrumental solos, relying instead on disconcerting electronically-altered instruments and voices (both male & female) with layered instrumental textures and quirky kaleidoscopic melodies. Oddly, these insanely catchy songs bore into your brain like the earwig in that Night Gallery episode. Many of these short pieces have narrative-style lyrics, which isn't unusual when you consider that almost all the band's albums have a unifying theme or concept (Third Reich 'n' Roll consists of funhouse-mirror parodies of oldies like "Hanky Panky" and "The Twist," with cover art portraying Dick Clark as Hitler). With its eerie distorted guitar, metronome-like beat, and suicidal monotone, "The Aging Musician" is a particularly scathing diatribe against the parasitic aspects of the rock music biz ("If you like to pretend that you'll never get old/You've got what it takes to rock 'n' roll"). "Would We Be Alive?" is an ominous, pulsing synth-pop tune with a sea-siren female chorus that challenges the necessity of "security." These tracks also feature contributions from fellow travelers Carla Fabrizio, Molly Harvey, Todd Rundgren, Fred Frith, and the late Phil "Snakefinger" Lithman. For neophytes, the merely curious, or lovers of truly strange music, Petting Zoo, with its twenty bite-sized objets d'art and budget price tag, is a tantalizing and crucial introduction to their world of uneasy listening.
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