There's an anecdote that Red Krayola singer/guitarist Mayo Thompson likes to tell. It's about philosopher of science Sydney Morgenbesser: "He's at some philosophical conference, and some linguist is up there saying, 'A double negative is always a positive, but there's no language where a double positive is a negative,' and Morgenbesser calls out from the back: 'Yeah, yeah.' "
His obvious delight in the story isn't surprising: Its air of intellectual combativeness and the tension between its cerebral setup and colloquial punch line are also marked features of the records that Thompson, the Houston band's co-founder and sole constant member, has released under the Red Krayola banner over the past 35 years. The joke also makes a serious point about how difficult it is to generalize about language, music and other representational systems. This is a theme that unites the Krayola's various incarnations, from its psychedelic-era origins to its geographically scattered present form, in which Thompson wields more seniority than control. (As he puts it: "I don't want there to be a hierarchy of relations. The hierarchy is obvious. I write a good chunk of the material, but everybody participates in this collective project, and the royalties are dished out accordingly. I get the most, but I'm the oldest and the meanest.")
Red Krayola's new double positive, Fingerpainting, may surprise (and initially frustrate) fans of the band's guitar-driven, song-centered work on Chicago indie Drag City, which started releasing Thompson's records in 1994, about the time he took a teaching position at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, after two decades in Europe. The first clue that something's up is the record's personnel. The current core participants are all present, but so are founding members Frederick Barthelme and Steve Cunningham, with whom Thompson recorded the band's debut, Parable of Arable Land, back in 1966. Typically, the packaging (and Thompson) is slightly mysterious about who played what or when. The new disc opens with "George III," a minimal guitar piece recorded in England in the 1980s, which crossfades into "Bad Medicine," a mangled blues with bad-trip lyrics ("How can I keep you around in the state you're in? / You're bad medicine, baby") and MIDI rhythms constructed by Albert Oehlen, a German visual artist who has been a Krayola associate since the mid-1980s. After this, there's a burst of clattering improvisation, topped with Art Center colleague Stephen Prina's calm repetition of what Thompson finishes singing. Similarly, sometime vocalist Sandy Yang (who came into the fold as an Art Center undergrad) starts wailing the lyrics to "There There Betty Betty" immediately after the "straight" version is finished. And so it goes, song and nonsong interrupting each other for the length of the disc, all with a smudged, gestural quality befitting its title.
In this way, Fingerpainting is consciously modeled after Parable, which alternates acid anthems such as "Transparent Radiation" with sprawling "free" tracks performed by the core trio plus the Familiar Ugly, a loose amalgam of Texas hippies who congregated around the band early on. On Fingerpainting, the "open sections," as Thompson now calls them, there's unreleased material from the original Barthelme/Cunningham/Thompson era, but the record's running order isn't as simple as old noise/new song.
"The alternation isn't quite so coherent, on-and-off," Thompson says. "There's only a couple of instances where you get a pure blast from the past, so to speak. The rest of the time you might find -- if you cared, or knew, or if it mattered, even -- that it's embedded in other kinds of material recorded at other times and other places. All the tunes are vintage material. 'Bad Medicine' is a tune that Cunningham had when we met him. But the recordings of the songs are all contemporary versions, handled in a certain way. There is obviously a game of alternation being played: This is a song structure; this is another kind of structure; what kind of structure is this?"
Tom Watson, the South Bay guitarist formerly of Slovenly and Overpass, and a current Krayola mainstay, explains further: "The basic song structures were done in an afternoon with me and David [Grubbs, ex-Gastr del Sol guitarist] and Mayo playing three guitars, trying to synchronize with these rhythm tracks from Albert. But there are also bits from live performance, little parts he might have asked me to play at a show two years ago, and there's a lot of collage work, using digital tape the way people used to use analog tape. There was a lot of compiling of bits and pieces from different sources, so I have a feeling this record was something Mayo had considered for a long time."
In a sense, Fingerpainting extends Thompson's collaborative ethos by forcing disparate periods of the band's history into dialogue with one another. It's a challenging piece of work, but a rewarding one. Once you get past the band's peculiar arranging, the songs are among the most accessible the band has released.
The Red Crayola (the name's earlier, legally actionable spelling) as such was born in Houston in 1966, an outgrowth of Thompson's association with Frederick Barthelme, brother of the late short-story writer Donald and now a Mississippi-based novelist. Barthelme began as the band's drummer but was soon playing everything he could find ("Microphone to the neck? That's him.") Joined by bassist Steve Cunningham, the two played around the burgeoning Texas psych/blues-rock scene and cut Parable with help from the Familiar Ugly and Thirteenth Floor Elevators front man Roky Erickson. Even this early on, the band's membership tended to be fluid, what with Bonnie Emerson, Danny Schact and Mark Frohman also jumping in and out of the mix.
After Corky's Debt to His Father, a 1970 solo album, Thompson next surfaced in New York, working as a studio assistant for Barthelme's old hero artist Robert Rauschenberg and playing music only casually. In 1973, though, he met members of Art & Language, a predominantly British collective who were among the earliest and most analytical exponents of Conceptual Art. Thompson fit right in.
By 1976 Thompson was in London making Nine Gross and Conspicuous Errors, a performance video that has never been released commercially, and the album Corrected Slogans, both of which match skeletal backing by Thompson and 16-year-old drummer Jesse Chamberlain (later of the Necessaries) with Art & Language's dry, unsingerly voices and their intentionally antilyrical lumps of Marxist art theory. Here, pop form and decidedly nonpop content either cancel each other out ("It's an Illusion" sets lines such as "It's just not autonomy / That support for technology / Is hegemonic agency" to the chord progression of "Teenager in Love") or fail to meet at all, as when painter/critic Philip Pilkington simply recites prose over a drum/piano march: "Don't listen to sociologists; don't talk to sociologists. Social practice has no sociological content."
On 1979's fierce, Pere Ubu-backed Soldier Talk, which Thompson characterizes as "a response to punk," and later works, the stylistic features most associated with Red Krayola are fully in place: the impersonal nature of the lyrics; the use of multiple vocalists for specific effects; Thompson's elaborate melodic writing and fractured sense of form; and a constant tension between skilled playing and an unfinished, seat-of-the-pants quality that prevents the music from lapsing into "progressive" dullness. As Thompson says of A&L's own visual work, "the gestalt remains deliberately slightly clunky."
No members of Art & Language, which continues to this day mostly as a nom de brush for painters Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden along with "house critic" Charles Harrison, appear on Fingerpainting (though Baldwin is credited on 1997's Hazel), but Thompson's fitful collaboration with the group remains fruitful: One of his current projects, with sound artist Marina Rosenfeld, is the completion of the music for A&L's Victorine, an "opera" about a French policeman who mistakes the nude figures in paintings by Courbet and Manet for a serial killer's victims. Beyond this, Thompson freely acknowledges the impact this collaboration has had on his subsequent work.
But Red Krayola's most recent work combines all the theoretical sophistication and improvisational spirit of the past with -- theory be damned -- a liberal dose of the Texas R&B Thompson grew up on. "I believe in a single point of reference in isolation from all others," says Thompson. "I believe that one Red Krayola record will do; get at least one in your collection, please."
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Thompson has a point: It might be interesting to know that Bobby Henschen was a jazz pianist (still active in Houston) that the band knew in its early days, or that his contribution to "Filthy Lucre," which ends the album, dates from the early 1970s. But you don't need this information to get how the band superimposes Henschen's florid, expressive piano cadenza on top of Oehlen's implacable MIDI beat, two utterly incompatible ways of organizing sound, each pointing out the other's limitations. Still, Thompson sometimes speaks of Fingerpainting as if it were a full-dress cover version of Parable of Arable Land.
The differences between Red Krayola circa 1966 and 1999 may lie less with the sounds it makes as with how it talks about them. On Parable, these open sections were identically titled "Freeform Freakout," a trippy description Thompson seems to regret, but on Fingerpainting, each gets an elaborate title that mocks the possibility of giving a rational account of such abstract music. The funniest, in its entirety, is: "A Sow with an Abbess's Bonnet Is Sitting on Four Rock-Objects and Singing Along with Them. The Song Sounds Like a Cheater and Is Imprisoned in a Striped Toy Box Because Its Aims Are Not Recognizable. On Top of the Box Is a Head That Could Be Elvis's, If He Had Survived This."
Stranger still, the title is actually a useful guide for listening. The cheap-sounding keyboard that runs through the piece could well be compared to "a striped toy box," and the strong backbeat that ends it could conceivably have something to do with Elvis. (I can't help you with the sow, though.) Similarly, Live 1967 reproduces a manifesto written by the band's original lineup, full of notions about the nature of music that were in the air at the time: "Music is that which is proposed as music. We free the sounds and free ourselves of responsibility to them or for them." Fingerpainting includes a manifesto of sorts as well, but it's cagier, less John-Cagean, a punning take on the universalist tone of free-jazz liner notes: "Music is the feeling horse of the planet. Spin across, void, to that space where next to nothing shows through its feeling."
Thompson is joking; he's not joking. Both and neither. You can tell by his tone of voice. Yeah, yeah.