by Daevid Brock
No, this is not some fancy schmancy reissue of Eskimo. ‘Revisited’ means I have given this classic a fresh spin after not hearing it for many years. I discovered The Residents in the early 80s when I spotted Fred Frith’s name on the back of the Commercial Album. It was their latest at the time, and after a couple spins I quickly scooped up the previous albums. The Residents were not only creating music like I had never heard before, but each album had its own identity. And the bands’ backstory schtick and eyeballed mystery surrounding their identity made them so much fun. I loved those early albums, but Eskimo would come to play a special role in the lifestyle I was living at the time.
Released in 1979, The Residents sought to… I’ll quote: “Recreate not only the Eskimo ceremonial music, but also a living context for its existence, in the form of Eskimo stories”. There’s more but that’s the nub of it. And, of course, this was all done with a singularly unique Residents spin on the idea. There are five titled tracks, but I have always experienced the album as one continuous piece.
The windswept opening, with its chants, hypnotic horn, and water splashing against the shore, makes me feel like I’m right there in the frozen tundra among the natives. When drums are introduced, they combine with the chants to create a reverent feel. Wistfully dreamy synth melodies are the song of the Eskimo, representing their lives and tales amidst hoots, cries, grunts, squalls, Eskimo language narrative and conversation, and more. A stringed instrument plucks a simple melody as the Eskimo minstrel sing- chants his song. The atmosphere is harshly cold and windy throughout, and the sense of isolation is palpable… all part and parcel of the severe environment the Eskimos live in.
The Residents did a magnificent job with the voices and chants, which are, in a way, the stars of the show. The percussion is impressive too. The Residents accomplished a lot with mostly voice, percussion, and effects, with the synths/keys playing a supporting role. The last several minutes of the album are the most purely ‘musical’ and it’s lovely.
I discovered The Residents at a time when I was working 80+ hours a week in restaurants, and I did this with few days off for about three years. My schedule shifted dramatically between days and nights and overlapping days and nights. Evenings meant getting off work around 5am, and when I got home the feeling of being completely exhausted yet still wound up made it difficult to get to sleep. My bed was a mattress on the floor and my stereo and speakers were on the floor at the foot of the bed. Many a night I would put on Eskimo when I went to bed because for me it was like New Age music (‘New Age’ being a trendy genre of music at the time). Eskimo lulled and relaxed me, and most of the time I thankfully managed to drift off before whichever side I was playing was over.
A roommate who worked in the same restaurants had a hammock over his bed. He would lie in it playing an album titled Wood Masted Sailboat, which consisted of a boat bumping against a dock in gently splashing water, over two sides of the LP. One day I handed him Eskimo and suggested he give it a try. 15 minutes later he brought it back with a ‘You gotta be kidding’ smirk on his face. In 2021 I find this album as fresh and exciting as I did 40 years ago.