The Residents – Mole Box: The Complete Mole Trilogy
Released 5th April 2019
Part of the pREServed Residents reissue series, this 6CD box set includes the albums Mark Of The Mole, The Tunes Of Two Cities and The Big Bubble, plus many extras including two discs of full live performances of The Mole Show from 1982/83… Ian Canty digs himself a hole and digs in…
The Residents’ Commercial Album was a critical success, but unsurprisingly that didn’t cross over into big sales and mainstream acceptance, which appears to have been the Residents’ intent. Or was it? There’s no real way of knowing for certain, but one thing that you could be sure about was that their next move would be into something completely different. The Mole Trilogy was that without doubt.
Never ones to lack ambition or shirk the sheer hard work it would take to achieve an aim, they decided that the next set of albums would fit together as part of a complete narrative. It turned out that first album Mark Of The Mole would tell the initial part of the story, the next LP The Tunes Of Two Cities would highlight the differences between the two protagonist groups in musical taste and third record The Big Bubble would work as a sequel to the first LP, showing how things moved on in the years after the original story took place. Other items that would have fleshed out the tale further never made it to release – the three albums that did emerge making up parts 1, 2 and 4 of the whole. We can only guess what part 3 or any subsequent recordings would have brought to the table.
In 1981 the world woke up to Mark Of The Mole, which told the story of an indigenous people uprooted from their homes by a catastrophic flood and forced to settle instead in the land of folk who were their polar opposites. Inspired by US depression-era fiction like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, the underlying message of the problems faced by people forced to migrate through disaster and thereafter struggling to adapt to a different land and culture still has as much, if not more, resonance today.
The two factions involved were the Moles, hard-working characters thrown out of the homes after the flooding disaster and the Chubs, lazier and more laidback denizens of where the Moles settle. The story begins with approach of that devastating flood, which sets the story’s wheels in motion. The culture clash with the Chubs is demonstrated, but after a period of adjustment things settle down, with Moles happy to do the menial jobs the Chubs despise. This is before an invention meant to improve life results in a devastating war and a kind of resolution at the end. That is the basic thread of the Mark Of The Mole. But being the Residents it is adorned with all sorts of oddness and a sound that showed a developing interest in electronics which allowed new technology to improve on the cut-ups and samples of their early work.
So disc one here is the original Mark Of The Mole album, plus bonus material recorded in the studio in 1982 which finds the Residents reprising tracks from the LP. The Mark… album itself is broken down into the six interlocking parts of the story (which take their own twists and turns), more a musical drama piece than a conventional LP. As such it is pretty difficult to just pull tracks out and say “this is a good one”. However having said that, I found Migration particularly effective in portraying the ceaseless grind of the flight from a homeland towards an uncertain future. The slowly speeding up marching rhythms, then a near whispered vocal and alternately jolly and morose synth lines all go to build a skilful and convincing piece. It neatly sums up all the hopes and fears that being uprooted to another land entails. The following Another Land is a good sequel too and The Mark Of The Mole still delivers as a piece of pure music theatre with a message.
The bonus tracks appended to this disc all come from a set entitled Res Dance ’82 (Live In the Studio). These are in effect the Residents working up what would become the basis for The Mole Show. Part two of Res Dance ’82 can be heard on the Tunes Of Two Cities disc, but what we get here is basically short and sweet versions of the album’s themes. These actually work well in their truncated forms. In this guise Voices Of The Air is probably as close as any of these come to fulfilling the “Dance” label given it, with dancing woodblock clicks, a “spy” guitar line and a slightly more audible warning section. Arguably Final Confrontation works even better here, a real sense of tension with frantic electronic screeches among other foreboding noises.
The Tunes Of Two Cities, which occupies the second disc here, is essentially a bit more backstory on the Mole legend. This album looked at the two different cultures’ musical preferences. The Chubs favouring a kind of laid-back almost Big Band Jazz, whilst the Moles preferring things in a more relentless, industrial style. This of course reflected their character traits shown in Mark Of The Mole, but everything was of course filtered through the Residents very own oddo-meter. Having said that, their efforts in the Chubs’ mode show that they could easily pull off playing it straight in the Jazz/Bebop genre. They don’t quite do that here, but their skills are apparent and the tunes they put together with these stylings are catchy, attractive and some of my favourites on this disc.
Serenade For Missy introduces us to the Chubs’ musical milieu, a light combination of trombone (which may or may not have been electronically generated) and piano working its way pleasingly to a spectacular ending. Mourning The Undead possibly is the apex of the mechanical sounds favoured by the Moles, an unstoppable clanking rhythm seasoned with drill sounds. What sounds like a tin can orchestra starts The Evil Disposer, this one is characterised by a sinister organ sound and is a contrast to the bright Jazz stylings of Smokebeams. On the final piece, Happy Home, there seems to me that some form of compromise is found, a crossover between some appealing horn sounds of the Chubs and the more electronic progression of the Moles. That’s how I saw it anyway and later on this track’s place at the conclusion of the two live sets seems to point that way.
On this disc the bonus tracks are split into three sections. More From the Res Dance ’82 tapes including a smooth shuffle through Smack Your Lips and an ebullient The Secret Seed. Then we have some 1982 rehearsals of which the pick for me was Song Of The Wild, which has some good power and what sounds like finger clicks. Lastly come three tunes recorded at the time of the Mole stuff, but never made official release at the time. Of these, Open Up has a neat guitar twang and the Jazz feel continues on Scent Of Mink, marking them both in Chub territory. The sole Mole contribution seems to be Anvil Forest, which has some driving mechanical percussion. All the extras on this disc are well worth a listen and the album itself achieves the aim of providing more depth to the Mole saga.
Many people thought the Residents had finally been unmasked, having viewed the four uncomfortable figures that featured on the sleeve photo of the final album in the series (yet…) The Big Bubble. Not quite so, as these were actually three actors and a German fan, posed in white tuxedos presumably as yet another red herring. This picture was actually purported to be The Big Bubble, a band who spearheaded the Zinkenite protest, but we will get to that in a moment. This was another of the Residents’ games within a game, which could easily fox anyone not in on the joke.
This record came out two years after the stage show had finished in 1985 and clearly took place some time after the Final Confrontation of Mark Of The Mole. Though the war detailed in that piece appeared to end without much changing, a couple of developments of note occurred: Mohelmot, the language of the Moles, was banned and in the intervening years Moles and Chubs had mated, with the resulting progeny were termed “Cross”. The Big Bubble consisted mostly of Cross musicians and as such adopted the propulsive rhythmic ticks and electronics of the Moles and the Jazzy touches of the Chubs, along with developing their own sound that bore a passing resemblance early Rock/R&B played backwards. In addition, the band were co-opted by a political group called the Zinkenites, an organisation demanding that a new Moholmot state was created.
So along with spoofing record company avarice and political opportunists, this LP also opened up new dimensions to the Mole story. But what was the music like? Well although the original sleeve note characterised them as a “Garage” outfit, The Big Bubble’s music is substantially more complex than that. The song The Big Bubble itself is like a piece of 50s Rock ‘N’ Roll cut with synths and an eerie feeling of menace somewhat akin to the atmosphere exuded by the film Eraserhead. The wheezing, clockwork beat and bass pulses make Gotta Gotta Get sound positively primeval and Fear For The Future is appropriately doom-laden. Die-Stay-Go (the titles point the way the story was going) has more structure, with kicking drums and an almost calypso approach. The sad and dramatic Cry For The Fire provides a real highlight, with the bonus live version from Norway television also wonderful.
The extras on this disc include the projected Christmas single Jingle Bell, the wild and tribal Untitled and 4 live versions of the album’s tracks. Also it has some interesting acapella takes of Die-Stay-Go and Kula Bocca. It has been said that the Residents set down the vocals for this LP first and built the music around it, so it is fascinating to see the songs in their formative states.
Disc four introduces us to the live Mole Show, heard here from the Roxy Los Angeles, part of their five night Californian sojourn. An elaborate theatrical production, The Mole Show on tour put such pressure on the band’s internal relations and finances that it nearly signalled the end for the Residents. But back in 1982 it took shape with the structure of Mark Of The Mole being seasoned with material from The Tunes Of Two Cities and also including as an encore a new version of Satisfaction. The spidery, discordant squeal of the guitar that made their version of the Rolling Stones’ standard so special is at times audible in the Mole mix, so it was a logical inclusion.
The idea behind the show seemed to be to make it seem like it was falling apart as it was going along, with Jilette making snarky comments and agitating the crowd, the Residents and the whole show’s purposely degenerating production values, which eventually led to him being dragged off stage. He returned to give his final address handcuffed to a wheelchair. This set captures the Mole Show in its original form and a more prevalent bass line propels things, benefiting Voice In the Air particularly. The Secret Seed, God Of Darkness and The Song Of The Wild come in from The Tunes Of Two Cities to flesh out the presentation with the queasy bubbling of God Of Darkness being very effective.
The second (and final) live rendering of the Mole Show in its live guise comes from a year later, on the East Coast in Washington. Apparently it was a bit of a “seat of your pants” effort, with equipment being stranded after the European tour. This forced the band into a hive of activity in constructing new sets and also tweaking the running order to make the show special. As Penn Jillette was unavailable, Residents’ manager Bill Gerber stepped into the breach as narrator. Actually, given we only have what was recorded to go on and none of the visuals that were such an important element, his more exposition-driven asides do give the show a little more shape and help things along for us at home. It worked playing it more or less straight.
The Residents knew this was going to be the last outing for the Mole Show and poured everything in. Though following more or less the running order of the Roxy show, we do get a couple of extra numbers in the guise of a guitar-driven rendition of Smack Your Lips from The Tunes Of Two Cities and the brief marching electronics of Shorty’s Lament, which led to the intermission. There’s a real sense of purpose here and the resolution that is Happy Home really brought it home. Given the gig’s setting in Washington DC, it ends fittingly with a warped version of The Star Spangled Banner. But wait! After this there is an interview with the Residents’ female spokesperson, who at one point laconically observes “They’re kind of secretive these guys are”.
The final disc here ties up all the odds and ends of the Mole project, along with when the Residents revisited the ideas and recordings afterwards. The MOTM Mix One Concentrate is a total gem. 25 minutes of the themes of the Mole material without the vocals, it is a moving and inventive piece and hugely enjoyable. From MOM1 is, as the sleeve note mentions, more in the style of the Commercial Album, but it is a great Residents’ weird story (nothing seemingly to do with the Moles) told in quick fashion with memorable music attached. Four tracks are given over to the Intermission, intro and outro music for the Mole Show, each piece being effective in setting the scene and maintaining the atmosphere. The version of Satisfaction on this disc is more distorted and deranged than the original. A keeper, for sure.
The Mole Box, unless you are one of those perennial “glass half empty” characters, is as definitive a collection of the Mole series as we are likely to get and on the whole excellent stuff which gives a real insight into the band’s thought process and creativity. It works as a testament to the Residents’ own unique ambition, ideas and persistence and is an ultimately satisfying and enthralling boxset. There is nothing else like this and indeed them. The Mole series, their biggest project, perhaps wasn’t fully realised at the time (Where’s part 3? Was it all part of the in-joke?), but there is enough of the story here to intrigue, bemuse and beguile. Which may well have been their objectives, but as they’re not letting on I’ll just say it was an absorbing way to spend a few hours and made big and bold impression on me. More power to the Moles!
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All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here