God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It proved a prescient title for the then Texas-based trio’s second album. The group released that record in 1968; after they split, guitarist-vocalist Mayo Thompson went on to fly the Krayola’s flag from England, Germany, Chicago, and Pasadena. He took on a wide array of crew members: the conceptual collective Art & Language; the entirety of Dub Housing–era Pere Ubu; Raincoats twiller Gina Birch; one-stop feminist punk icon Lora Logic; Swell Map Epic Soundtracks; artist Albert Oehlen; Chi-town underground luminaries Jim O’Rourke, John McEntire, and traded-from-Kentucky David Grubbs; former Minuteman George Hurley; Belly woman Tanya Donnelly; and lately, novelist Fredrick Barthelme, who had drummed on the first Krayola jam, the deep-fried psychedelic classic Parable of Arable Land. As a result, Singles, the 21-track collection of titular artifacts from 1968 to 2002, sounds like a lot of different bands, but it also sounds like exactly the same band; Thompson’s one-of-a-kind voice, which can range from a sardonic, slightly sinister baritone burr to an atonal, querulous falsetto yelp, scars all the songs he sings. (It’s not in evidence, however, on the new band’s new instrumental soundtrack to Japan in Paris in L.A.) When Logic or Birch takes the mic, Thompson’s tensile, often skittering guitar nails things down. In any event, his questing sensibility is ever present.
The uninitiated listener is best off starting about a third of the way in, with the 1979 epic “The Story So Far,” from the Birch/Logic/Soundtracks/Angus Gaye/George Oban lineup. It’s structured more like an overture than a pop song, but it’s got plenty of rock crunch, and Thompson really throws himself into a lyric that could just as easily have borne the title “Fear and Epistemology.” Its contrarian majesty throws everything around it—the amiable lope of 1970’s “Woof,” the herky-jerky Tourette’s attack of ’76’s “Wives in Orbit,” the sour, brittle deconstruction of ’93’s “The Red Crayola on 45,” et al.—into comprehensive relief. Also helpful are writer-artist Thomas Groetz’s liner notes. While Thompson has bristled at accusations of obscurantism, he hasn’t always made his motives and/or methods clear; so to learn that the wretched lyrics to “Your Body Is Hot” were in fact a found object gives the song’s banality a near-tragic dimension. It’s also nice to be confirmed in one’s suspicion that the Krayola didn’t cut German versions of “Ratman, the Weightwatcher” and “Future Pilots” because they thought the tunes would go down a storm on Radio Hamburg.
Red Krayola play the Knitting Factory September 20.