Growing up in the Midwest, there were documents of extreme importance to young music lovers. One of these documents was Rolling Stone magazine, whose more recent irrelevance wasn’t in place during the late seventies/early eighties. Ironically, one of the most problematic issues of the magazine today (a collection of advertisements interrupted by brief snidbits of entertainment information) turned out to be a blessing to a few young Iowa music lovers.
Towards the back of nearly every Rolling Stone publication, prominently featured in the magazine’s classified ad section, was a black and white advertisement for Ralph Records. It featured a leather-clad skull advising readers to “Buy or die!” What Ralph Records was selling exactly remained unclear after reading through the information. Instead, if you provided Ralph Records with a buck, you’d be provided with a 7″ sampler of the artists on their label.
A friend of my took a chance on a bill and we gathered in his bedroom to listen to what the San Francisco based company returned back. One of the artists on the sampler was the Residents. They had more tracks on the single than any other band, mainly because their songs were only a minute in length. These songs, as I later learned, were pulled from their landmark The Commercial Album that required all of the songs to be the same length as a traditional radio spot.
The music was weird, but not enough for my friend to consider ordering another title from the Ralph Records’ catalog that was included with his sampler. Based on the glowing praise of one of the titles, he decided to go with Eskimo.
What he received back was even more unsettling than the sampler, but no less intriguing. Eskimo may be a Western band’s first attempt at World Music, but the world that The Residents musically explores is not exactly a hotbed of rhythms, melodies, or instrumentation. And while the musical direction was an unusual choice, what drew us into it was the cover art: the album seemed to be performed by a quartet of tuxedo-clad eyeballs.
Things were a lot less hectic then; as pre-teens, we didn’t have the amount of distractions that kids have today.
Yet sitting still through Eskimo was a task of epic proportions. True to the culture they were representing, there is little on the album that resembles traditional Western song structures. The music of Eskimo centers around chilly atmospherics (courtesy of some very appropriate synth work), seemingly traditional indigenous chanting (more on that later) and an apparently honest recreation of the Eskimo’s ceremonial instrumentation. All of this is done on six tracks that are complimented by a story within the liner notes that the listener is encouraged to follow along with while listening to the album in its entirety.
Those forty minutes then seemed like an eternity, particularly as we were expecting some of the same no wave shenanigans evidenced in the band’s offering on the “Buy or die!” sampler.
Or were we just too young to understand them? Revisiting Eskimo now seems to reveal that The Residents were actually making a poignant statement on the state of crass consumerism and how Madison Avenue will eventually be able to influence cultures thousands of miles away, even those seemingly away from media outlets and commercial zones. Indeed, by the end of Eskimo, you can hear the natives chanting “Coca Cola adds life!” the tag line of the soda company’s ad campaign from the late 70s.
Started in April of 1976 and completed three years later, The Residents offer up a surprisingly accurate statement in both theory and music. I’m not sure if the Eskimo‘s traditional five-note scale is followed entirely throughout this album, but one can definitely feel a legitimate transportation to the northern regions of the planet if you follow the back cover’s direction on relaxing with a pair of headphones while listening to the disc.
Mute Records has done a fine job in the re-issue of perhaps The Residents’ most notorious offerings in their incredibly wide and diverse catalog. The album is presented in its entirety without bonus cuts, remastered with incredible sound restoration and packaged in a book-like case that reveals the original liner note story line and little else in divulging information about the notoriously shy Residents.
Eskimo is devoid of any proper single track to recommend or focus on, so the curious may be better serve to explore one of the bands worthy compilations to determine if these art-rock legends are something you’d enjoy.
After all, it took nearly thirty years before I finally understood the chill that these optic hooligans originally intended for me to understand.