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The Red Krayola - Singles 1968-2002

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Artist: The Red Krayola

Album: Singles 1968-2002

Label: Drag City

Review date: Feb. 9, 2005

The single format is an interventionist’s dream. The best singles are weighty items, firing seven minutes of music out in the most privileged pop context. So, given the dream of the vinyl 45 has been down-sized by the compact disc, left to languish in collector inanity and micro-edition fetishism, why not trace the ‘demise’ of the humble 7“ via The Red Krayola? The group’s four decade career has managed to navigate several of the most important underground movements of their respective times (60s countercultural psychedelia, late ’70s/early ’80s post-punk, ’90s Chicago independent rock); more importantly, their records often seem to exist as commentaries on their immediate surrounds, the genre expectations of the collective of musicians drawn upon by head Krayola Mayo Thompson, and the predominant intellectual arguments of the day – “An Old Man’s Dream”, from 1981’s Kangaroo? album, is a critique of Freudian psychoanalysis, one of the most important forebears of much post-structuralist thought that was central to the developing cultural studies work of the time.

The opening three tracks from the 1960s predate obvious intellectual rigour - “Woof” is an out-take from Thompson’s classic Corky’s Debt to His Father album (if memory serves correctly, this ‘unreleased’ track actually surfaced on a Ptolemaic Terrascope giveaway 7” in the late 1990s) The phenomenally odd “Saddlesore” single makes a welcome reappearance - imagine if Thompson’s interest in country and folk forms had been integrated, with much teeth-gnashing on the part of the musicians involved, with the acid-drenched rock of the Red Krayola’s Parable of Arable Land. From there, the compilation moves through a series of late 1970s sides which find Mayo Thompson drawing from the dynamic body of ideas intrinsic to post-punk era. “Micro-Chips & Fish” wants to be a dub track, but Thompson can’t keep his hands off the scrabbly, de-libidinising guitars, and the two excerpts from Kangaroo? place pop music in service to academic critique. “Born in Flames” is the highlight from the era’s output, with Lora Logic’s faltering falsetto cracking and quavering over a tight mutant disco backbone. The Krayola albums from this era seemed to hinge upon one particular approach or genre and bleed it until it was emaciated: the restrictions of the single freed Thompson to create willful, sometimes bloody-minded accidents. An accident is often the predecessor of great art: sometimes Thompson doesn’t make the final leap of faith, but his perverse dedication to informed experimentation is always involving.

Which brings us to the Red Krayola’s ’90s output, which is in turns painful (the meandering, collapsed “Come on Down”) and hilarious: “4teen” seems to be a direct commentary on pop music’s structures and formal exigencies, Thompson singing “I killed a Beatle” before the song wobbles to closure under the refrain “shit la la la means I love you…” - romance, sarcasm, scatology and the debunking of pop mythology in three minutes. The Red Krayola of this era treats the 7” single as a blank canvas, throwing ideas against vinyl to see how many etch their indelible mark into the grooves. Sometimes these singles edge toward the inexplicable: “Your Body is Hot” is highly disconnected, with pattering drum machines and waves of guitar noise panning like an unplanned parallel to Royal Trux’s Twin Infinitives. Thompson’s central interlocutor for this era was/is the German artist Albert Oehlen, whose work is as maniacally cognitively dissonant as Thompson’s - when I interviewed David Grubbs late last year, he observed that Oehlen is “a master at the ungainly, the ill-fitting, the awkward, the allegedly clueless, and the straight-faced.” You can hear this all through the music: pop song repeatedly splitting at the seams.

I recently found myself re-reading an old interview with Oehlen. One sentence in particular stood out, a throwaway comment that Oehlen used to describe his approach: “Not very careful of the material.” Part of me wants to parallel that statement with the output of The Red Krayola, but there’s an incredible intellectual rigor to Thompson’s songwriting. He’s continually problematizing the formal tropes of pop music and lyrics. Even when their ‘aesthetics’ go into nose-dive, these dozen or so singles attest to a continued desire to unsettle formal expectations, to question what is at the heart of music and its interface with commerce and culture. And that’s a question too few artists are posing, let alone trying to answer.

By Jon Dale

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