The Residents American Composers Series, begun in 1984, was perhaps the most ambitious uncompleted project this anonymous, San Francisco-based, avant-garde pop group ever announced. After they abandoned their early-'70s full-length dadaist music-video project Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? and left the Mole Trilogy unfinished, another idea struck the Residents' collective fancy: They decided to launch a sixteen-album series -- to be released in yearly installments from 1984 until the year 2000 -- with each album side offering a Residents' tribute to another great American composer. These two volumes, which have never before been released on a domestic CD, were all that saw the light of day before the band moved on to other projects.
George & James honors Mssrs. Gershwin and Brown in a fashion that only the Residents could conceive, tackling three of Gershwin's most famous pieces ("Rhapsody in Blue," "I Got Rhythm," and "Summertime") and re-creating half of Brown's famous Live at the Apollo, 1962, complete with dubbed-in crowd noise. Stars & Hank Forever! replicates the music of Hank Williams and John Philip Sousa, skewering five of the country singer's greatest hits and stringing six familiar Sousa themes into a suite complete with extraneous noises to replicate marching bands at a parade. Fans of the original composers may well be horrified by the group's bizarre treatments, which are largely dissonant, simplistic and dominated by synthetic keyboards and occasional guitar from the group's confrere, the like-minded Snakefinger. Vocal duties on the Brown and Williams sides are taken over by distorted voices that shriek, hector and generally abuse the melodies they've been presented with.
These songs desecrate, subvert and insult their source material. So why listen? For one thing, the music's good for a laugh, as it gently pokes holes in the overinflated legends of four myth-worthy American musical giants. And most of the radically reinterpreted music holds up on its own, especially on George & James. The Hank Williams songs only really take off on the Michael Jackson-inspired "Kaw-Liga" and during Snakefinger's solos on "Hey Good Lookin'." Sousa's tunes, originally composed for the marching band, are downgraded to readings from the Residents' keyboard orchestra, and they suffer from interpretations that don't wander far enough from their homes. On the other hand, the Gershwin songs actually benefit from that same type of minimalist approach -- sparse keyboard variations on "Rhapsody in Blue" seem to suit the forlorn feelings of Gershwin's glorious original, even when the specific tones the Residents choose disrespect his melodies. "I Got Rhythm" is played as an out-of-tempo joke, and "Summertime," one of the most over-covered tunes in pop music, is given a uniquely unsettling and quiet treatment here. On the Brown songs, the Residents' vocalist knows he's no match for Brown's extraordinary singing, so he hams it up, stressing his limitations in an untutored homage to the R&B genius. Meanwhile, a multi-tracked accompanist fakes the Famous Flames; the "band" displays a blocky non-virtuosity thoroughly at odds with Brown's sleekly funky ensembles, as the singer trudges through "Try Me," "I Don't Mind" and the highlight, "Night Train."
There's nothing on either disc as overtly hostile as on the Residents' similarly conceived Third Reich 'n Roll pop-covers album (which featured Adolf Hitler, carrot in tow, on its sleeve), just some good-natured ribbing. With the exception of Sousa, the artists honored on these discs express the same sort of melancholy and longing that the Residents include in their own original compositions and that exemplify the Residents' love/hate relationship with pop music. They also locate the band's place within it -- always on the outside, looking in with love, humor, longing and maybe just a tinge of jealousy.