REVIEW: Residents, Wormwood (East Side Digital)

There is a great scene in Night of the Hunter, where a brave but frail and old Lillian Gish guards her children from a psychotic Robert Mitchum, rocking in a chair and holding a shotgun. As they sit around her deep in the night, she tells them, in plain and inspiring words, stories from the Bible.

The Residents’ Wormwood is not going to provide much in the way of hearty inspiration from the Bible. But the Bible is a collection of stories and, no matter how boring modern religions try to make it, a good story can still inspire or amuse or shock if told right. “Though much of it is abysmal and boring, much of it is entertaining and important reading,” say the Residents. “Today, many narrow-minded people wield the Bible as some sort of razor with which to slash their enemies. Allowing those people to decide what is important in the Bible is dangerous to the freedom of individual thought.”

The Residents then proceed to serve up 20 tracks, mostly sung by characters in rather nasty stories from the Bible with a couple of soundtracks thrown in. They include thorough liner notes with very witty summaries of the relevant Bible stories, each ending with the challenge “Look it up” and a reference. Their stories are interesting/appalling/capricious enough (several child sacrifices, incestuous rape, genocide, mass murder) that I did find myself looking some up stories just to check, which is precisely the point. There is an outstanding accompanying resource at http://www.rzweb.net/albums/wormwood.html with all the words and hyperlinks to an online version of the Bible stories in question.

The Residents have always been at their best creating atmospheric soundscapes (like their previous release Eskimo, a hypnotic/sleepy instrumental evocation of Eskimo life), and the strongest feature of this disc is indeed the atmospherics (best displayed in the instrumental soundtracks to The Creation and Revelation). But as they showed on the best tracks of Commercial Album (a brilliant idea: forty pop songs exactly one minute long (some cut off abruptly)) they can sometimes produce some pretty catchy and demented nursery-rhyme pop.

Here “Burn Baby Burn” is probably the single here (that’s a joke), a maniacally happy song by a girl about to be burned alive by her father as thanks to the Hebrew God YHWH for a victory in battle. “I’m ready to die but it seems to be odd that bleeding is better than breathing to God but soon I will be burning for my, soon I will be burning for my daddy. God digs my daddy!” Very catchy.

Other highlights include a revisionist look at the beheading of John the Baptist, emphasizing the sexual jealousy between Salome and her mother, Judas’s lament that he is called by God to betray Jesus (also see the movie/book The Last Temptation of Christ) and the stuttering Moses in “Bridegroom of Blood”.

Wormwood is not the kind of record you keep playing on your CD player, with some song on auto-repeat in a fruitless attempt to exorcise a hit from your mind’s ear. The songs go from weirdly compelling to annoying and I wish they’d take a bit more care to sing in tune, but for now there aren’t too many hybrids of performance art, garage rock, and humanizing humor. And in this day before corporations find a way to make megabucks out of this niche, I’m glad the Residents exist and I’m glad they’re producing genuinely interesting art like Wormwood, art with a brain, a funny bone, and heart.