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The Residents

Subtle as an amputation, the Residents cut themselves off from pop music's tumorous body three decades ago and never looked back. As prolific as they are self-indulgent, Mr. Skull and his cadre of one-eyed malcontents remain cloaked in deliberate secrecy (though the high-profile Penn Jillette from Penn & Teller was part of the touring Mole Show in 1982-83). And while they proudly anoint themselves "The World's Most Famous Unknown Band," these Bay Area transplants from Shreveport, Louisiana, can't disguise the fact that their high-concept efforts get more accessible and melodic with each passing year.

Sweet-sounding, vulnerable, and uncertain, Demons Dance Alone tells the adventures of a ladies' man known simply as Tongue because his taste organ is so big that he can wash his own ears with it. Tongue dreams of a wonderful life, trawls for quickies, gets his car torched, and eats more than he can swallow -- and that's only the first of three acts! By the time a sob story called "Neediness" rolls around (it's sung by a Barney the Dinosaur sound-alike with a Southern drawl), Tongue enters a profound state of denial, succumbs to more beaver fever (most notably the mother-disapproving "Betty's Body"), then finally looks for a girl with more steak than sizzle, ultimately finding her likeness in the "Beekeeper's Daughter." Honey-flavored harmonies, trademark synthesizers, and vocoders enhance this sing-songy and cautionary tale about infected kittens and unemployed policemen; at 28 tracks (seven of them are incidental padding to give the package more girth), it's music purely for the sake of music, constructed with a gleeful sense of purpose.

Equally bewildering, Petting Zoo is another promotional device from Uncle Willie and the gang that repackages old projects from the band's back catalog and celebrates their dark and special otherness with a 30th-anniversary retrospective. It's perfect one-stop shopping for bloodshot novices but more of the same for hunters and collectors who need not sell their old Residents stuff to buy new Residents stuff. Spanning time from the present to the past, the longplayer highlights hits from Demons on down to 1974's "Smelly Tongues," taking the quick but scenic route through 13 of the 34 albums to date, including 1995's frolicsome Gingerbread Man, 1991's unnerving Freak Show, and 1978's pseudo-worldly Duck Stab. Glaringly absent from the collection are any of the icon-trampling cuts from the American Composer series (where James Brown and John Philip Sousa get the stink-eye treatment in spades) or any of the music scored for five episodes of Pee-wee's Playhouse. And for all of the curious factoids that accompany the collection (Marlboro actually once commissioned the band for a performance in Germany provided Mr. Skull remove himself from the stage), the Rez almost seem more committed to marketing than music. They gloat about what's arguably the world's first punk single, a cover of the Stones' "Satisfaction," in the liner notes, (a tune that predates the Pistol's "God Save the Queen" by a full year), then take the chintzy way out by deeming it "not suitable" for inclusion. Bastards.

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John La Briola

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