Released 25th January 2019
Reissue of The Residents’ classic 1979 LP, with an extra disc full of rarities, demos and live recordings. Also this package includes both sides of the Diskomo single. Ian Canty raises the temperature thermostat and the alarm as the Eyeball Heads cometh.
More than just an album, Eskimo builds its own world and lets us have a good look around it. It seems that it became The Residents’ world for a good long time too, as the drawn-out and trying circumstances of its recording had a huge effect on the band itself. First mooted in the mid-70s, five years elapsed before Eskimo finally made it to the record shop racks. During that time frame, The Residents had a number of other projects on the go (including The Commercial Album which also sees reissue at the same time as Eskimo), but this record was at the forefront of their minds for a large majority of this period.
We must consider how the history of The Residents is littered with red herrings, misinformation, exaggeration and even on occasion the truth, but if the sleeve notes here are to be trusted, the band disappeared to deep inside the Arctic Circle at various intervals for long stretches of time. Of course they didn’t, except perhaps in their own minds, but what is certain is that this project meant a great deal to them and they were eager to get Eskimo absolutely right. They aimed to conjure an atmosphere that could make the listener shiver in the height of summer and tell their tall tales with maximum conviction. What they finally put together was a complete song cycle which takes us through the solemn, lonely and extremely cold times experienced by the Inuit people, despite the stories The Residents tell here not having much actual basis in fact.
Each piece comes with its own particular written narrative, first setting the scene and then helping to tell the story with the assistance of music and sound. Yes it is a work of fiction, conjured up in The Residents’ now eyeball-clad heads, but it feels real enough, icy blasts and strange rituals included. Musical theatre really more than a bunch of songs, an opera with a wordless libretto. The sleeve photo, which featured the debut of the eyeball heads, also found the band clad in evening dress, which may have been a pointer to the theatrical nature of the set.
Because of this, and more than most albums, Eskimo has to be listened to as a whole. The six long pieces tell different stories, but definitely interlock. It is impossible for me to totally shift the notion, too, that The Residents were taking the rise a bit about how seriously they were being taken as well. This is a bit easier to pick out on the Eskimo Acapella Suite, an extra track on disc one. Here their mix of slurred shouts, japes and nursery rhymes become all the more apparent without the backing music. As a one-time “peek behind the curtain” of The Residents it is invaluable.
I was almost sure the cheeky scamps chant something very much akin to “We are Devo” on A Spirit Steals A Child and it is confirmed here! Several of the supposed native chants seem to be advertising slogans (providing a buried link to The Commercial Album – they didn’t just throw these things together) and schoolyard rhymes on closer inspection. Another intention of The Residents may have been to spoof the cloying and overbearing approach of Western anthropology and highlight the maltreatment other cultures suffer as its flipside? There are a few satirical digs here and there, just below the surface and out of sight, unless you’re really paying attention.
Setting that all to one side, it cannot be denied that Eskimo does set an appropriate atmosphere and draws the listener in, using legends, myths and the lifestyle of Inuit culture. The ever-present howling wind ushers us too and each track gives one a hint of the chills. Treated as a story it works very well, with birth and (the festival of) death almost at opposite ends. But being The Residents it couldn’t be that simple, so the album begins with The Walrus Hunt instead. Let us for the duration of the album, at least, take things at face value as an enteratinment.
Curtain up. Among the blast of the constant gale we hear a kayak being rowed through the icy water, chants that can’t be deciphered and a long blow of a horn (a directional aid to the hunters). A musical commotion builds when the walrus is found and attacked. The Walrus Hunt ebbs and flows with the momentum being increased as the hunt reaches a climax, before dying away to just leave the wind to segue into Birth, the next track. This piece tells the fable of the craving for another (male) hunter, the rituals involved and the turmoil and sorrow of the mother. There’s some nice synth effects on here, drums and bells too. The chanting goes back and forth, with the Angakok (the magic man, present to preside over the birth) initiating the “call and response” with his deeper growl. I’m sure I heard the words “where do you boys wait?” in there! We hear the crying infant’s bawl and also the tears of the mother. The wind kicks up again to signal the end of this tableau.
Arctic Hysteria depicts the story of one woman’s brief descent into madness during the long weeks of darkness encountered there. A carefully picked-out tune on a string instrument (possibly a Kooa, if we are to believe the liner notes), spidery keyboards and a distorted male voice plus chants… “cupcake” being able to be detected audibly! A synthesiser imitates the buzz of a locust (in the Arctic!). On the next track, The Angry Angakok, a necki necki necki chant is replied by an angrier voice. It is the Angakok; his position is challenged by one of the community as they are unable to hunt. Something that sound like a violin and electronic drums also turn up on this one. A rumble denotes the Angakok asserting his authority and meaning death for the detractor.
The last two tracks here bring the album to a grand finale. Spirit Steals A Child has The Residents coming up with a glorious splattering sound meant to ape the popping of a bladder! We also hear the sound of a celebration, with a woodblock band and then the cries of a child left alone. This is followed by a desperate chase to find the kidnap victim, with a chant that includes the words “it’s not for me to say” if I heard correctly. There is a dog sacrifice (definitely accompanied by someone shout-singing “doggy, doggy, doggy”). Finally the wind takes us onto The Festival Of Death, not quite as negative as the title would seem, more like a New Year’s celebration. You can just about pick out the rhymes and jingles in the chants here (yes that does sound like “We are Devo”), along some great bass sounds and chimes. The story draws to a close with that wind again; the curtain falls, leaving this listener in need of a hot chocolate and a pullover.
The other extra on this disc is a previously-unreleased fourteen-minute demo of Eskimo. This truncated version includes mostly the same ingredients, but some are given a bit more emphasis. It is more difficult to follow as a story in this form, so it was no surprise that the album version was partitioned in the way that it eventually was. This is an important document to show how close the band were to following up Fingerprince sooner in 1978. The aforementioned Acapella Suite is also previously unissued and does give a rare insight into the fun The Residents must have got at times from what, overall, seems to have been a trying project for them.
Moving on to the second disc, to begin with we have three previously-unreleased items that were recorded around the same time as Eskimo and retain some of the motifs of that LP. Kenya and Middle East Dance both share the mark of Eskimo, but reposition the sound for the more arid environment it is intended to evoke. Scottish Rhapsody points more to The Commercial Album to me, weird synths and wobbles jousting with a lively tambourine. It is clear none of these tracks would have fit the concept of Eskimo, but they have their worth.
The Diskomo single, which distilled elements of the LP for intended (but unlikely) inroads to the booty-shaking nightclub fraternity, comes next. As it is presented here, The Residents play around hard and fast with the themes, speeding up vocals and dropping in the traditional instruments, all to the thwack of a tough dance beat. The demo version, which is also included, is much less slanted to the disco sound; the rhythm is still there, but is more in the background. It is closer to the original project and rather fun too.
The flip of Diskomo was four tracks – Disaster, Plants, Farmers and Twinkle presented under the joint name of Goosebumps. On these recordings, The Residents reworked nursery rhymes in their own peculiar fashion, enhanced by children’s musical instruments picked up from the now defunct Toys R Us store. My pick of these would be Farmers, which wildly swings between Old MacDonald, Pop Goes The Weasel, Mary Mary and Ten Little Indians, moving from a pulsating rhythm to a very watery-sounding synth.
Then we have four tracks that The Residents contributed to Subterranean Modern, a 1979 compilation album on their own Ralph Records label. These selections are all of a very high quality, excellent to have these available again. One of the conditions of being able to take part on the LP was to record a version of the Tony Bennett, Easy Listening classic, I Left My Heart In San Francisco, which they do and also an unheard instrumental preamble entitled Heart In SF is included. These tracks mostly look forward to The Commercial Album rather than back at Eskimo, apart from Time’s Up, which does recalls Eskimo‘s chiming sounds; it’s an excellent piece of work. Then comes The Sleeper, originally released on the Residue compilation. This is as close as The Residents had come at this point to pure synth-pop; it’s a lovely dark treat.
Finally, we have a couple of 1982 rehearsals of Eskimo Suite and Diskomo (a bit more basic, but still pretty good), live versions of Diskomo and Festival Of Death and the final track, Eskimo Opera Proposal. This was apparently put together for a projected stage version of the LP in the 1990s. It never happened, but you can see the potential it had from this. Using more up to date equipment (and the “rock” guitar they were evidently fond of during this period) helped them to conjure an atmosphere like the 1979 original, but different – sleeker sounding. The pipes, chimes and chants were still in place – they certainly could have made it work, and this is a fascinating update of the original idea.
This expanded reissue does justice to the original album’s vision and takes the listener on a journey to the frozen wasteland, even if it is in near-parody, the kind of “double-joke” The Residents were highly adept at. We see the bigger picture with the extras presented, but even being granted a look “behind the scenes” (so to speak) does not diminish Eskimo‘s grandeur and achievement. A fine and one-of-a-kind record, another puzzle to be unravelled and new ground being broken. A sonic trip to the extreme North, wear your woollies and jump in!
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here