The Red Crayola

More legend than functioning band for most of its four-decade-plus, on-again-off-again existence, the Red Crayola started off in the mid-'60s by playing whatever Houston clubs would book them. At the time, the RC was a rangy collective of psychedelic cavemen led by visionary icon-smasher Mayo Thompson, who would remain the band's only constant member over the years. The early Crayola climaxed its local career by competing in a 1966 battle of the bands at the Gulfgate Center Mall. Back then, the RC's anthemic "Hurricane Fighter Plane" functioned as a mere respite from the band's true specialty, improv jams identified simply as "Free-Form Freakouts." Fatefully, the Red Crayola were defeated at the battle of Gulfgate in the final round (by Johnny and Edgar Winter!), thus launching the band into a glorious, international obscurity that has continued unabated into the 21st century.

A rarity even in the context of this elusive band's career, Soldier-Talk has not seen the light of day since it was first released (and almost simultaneously deleted) by the UK's Radar Records in 1979, making this new reissue on Drag City a true discovery for obscure-music aficionados. The album itself is nothing to sneeze at, not least because the Red Crayola's lineup at the time included all the original members of like-minded Cleveland avant-garage superheroes Pere Ubu. Given the two bands' pedigrees, it's no surprise that the music here is angular, aggressive, dynamic and unpredictable, sometimes subtly colored and "prog"-like, and other times tightly wound and bristling with punk-infused energy. The title track finds the multifarious Mayo's trademark caterwauling vocals going head-to-head with Ubu singer David Thomas's helium shriek, creating some memorably harrowing moments.

Thompson's lyrics on Soldier-Talk are consumed with militaristic imagery (an obsession then shared by the band's then-youthful labelmate Elvis Costello, whose Armed Forces was also released on Radar in 1979). Songs like "Letter-Bomb," "Conspirator's Oath" and "An Opposition Spokesman" ("This burning car indicates that violence has only just subsided / This burning car indicates that one of our programs is somewhat misguided") make this 28-year-old treasure feel as fresh as today's Chron headline. Too bad about that part.


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