Several years ago a co-worker of mine was looking to clear some space in one of his closets when he came across a crate of records someone had forced upon him. The titles this friend of his had insisted he listen to had not appealed to this co-worker of mine in the least, so he put them in storage and basically forgot about them. When he came across this crate years later, he offered them to me, knowing that I am a big music fan. I was expecting a lot of crappy titles that I couldn't even sell at the local record shop, but was absolutely delighted to find that it was a small collection of punk and new wave in reasonable condition. Fear's The Record, Germs' GI, Minutemen's Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat, a few Lene Lovich 12" singles, and a number of other great stuff was suddenly mine!
Among these titles was a record by a band called The Residents with some very odd artwork and the enigmatic title Not Available. My knowledge of this band included the fact that they were covered by Primus on their Miscellaneous Debris E.P., and . . . well, that's about it. I put the LP in a protective sleeve, filed it on my shelf, and basically forgot about it for several years. Until this morning.
While doing some cleaning around the house, I decided to work on a project that I chip away at from time to time: taking my vinyl and ripping it to CD so I can file it in my iTunes where I can listen to the songs whenever I want without damaging the records. Today's choices included Madness' debut One Step Beyond . . ., and that strange looking album by that band that I didn't know much about. While One Step (which is a phenomenal ska record, by the way) was recording, I took to the internet to find out more about Not Available, and The Residents in general. It turns out that I have been missing out on a beautiful and challenging record with a great story around it.
The Residents are an art rock outfit from (possibly) Louisiana that have had a staggeringly prolific career since the mid-1970's. They firmly believe that the best art is created when the audience doesn't focus on things like the artists' appearance, race, gender, or basically anything that isn't the art itself. For this reason, The Residents have kept their identities absolutely confidential, performing on stage in eyeball masks and only communicating to the media through spokespeople (who may or may not actually be members of the band, though they deny it).
In keeping with this Theory Of Obscurity (as they refer to it), the band followed this line of thought to its logical end for what was their 2nd recorded album: what better way to create art that is free of the constraints of commercialism than by recording an album that the band has no intention of ever releasing to the public? Or, at the very least, as long as the members of the band remember what is actually on the recording. So they headed into the studio, recorded an album, and placed it in a vault never to be touched until such a time arose that even the members of the band couldn't remember what they had done. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the band's record label became impatient with them when they were behind schedule on a record just a few years later, and they pulled the masters for this album that was never meant to be available (hence the title), and released it without the band's consent. Which, strangely, keeps the Theory of Obscurity intact, as the band didn't intend for the music to be released, and yet it was.
The great back story aside, Not Available is a dense, haunting recording that vacillates between semi-tonal wailing, minimalistic chanting, and eerie ballad-like moments. It is presented as a rock-opera of sorts, though the story line is so obscure it makes Joe's Garage seem positively fluid in its narrative. The story is more or less the tale of a young woman named Edweena who heads to college with a porcupine named Knowledge, where she meets the Enigmatic Foe and a character named Catbird. Frankly, the plot (or, in this case, lack of one) isn't really important, since the music itself paints a vivid picture of confusion, uncertainty, and potentially impending doom while attempting to determine one's own identity (which is a fantastically accurate portrait of what many people experience when heading to college).
Not Available is an album that simply demands the listeners undivided attention (with a copy of the lyrics in front of them), and is absolutely unlike any other recording one is likely to ever hear.
Not Available - 8 out of 10