Don’t let the fact that this is a “singles” collection fool you into thinking that you’ll hear a bunch of three-minute pop songs trying to crack a radio format. No, these are just a heterogenous bunch of difficult-to-find tracks from the ever protean Mayo Thompson, the mainstay of the Red Krayola, whose long, obscure career in the avant garde began in Texas in the late ‘60s with the freak-out-heavy The Parable of Arable Land and the gentler but more perplexing God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail with It. After a hiatus, Thompson resurrected the Red Krayola in England in the late ‘70s, playing spastic post-punk with members of the Raincoats and X-Ray Spex, among others, and then continued to record sporadically until the ‘90s, when Drag City began issuing his work, both new albums and material that fell through the American distribution cracks. Over the years, he’s worked with an intriguing assortment of musicians, everyone from John Fahey to Epic Soundtracks to Pere Ubu to current labelmates Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs, and the results have never been dull and have always been challenging.
As this compilation spans the band’s many different formats over the years, it has very little continuity: Rhythmically complex song structures with busy drum parts, crisp guitar lines that are often discordant but rarely distorted (the Red Krayola aren’t of that experimental school devoted to feedback and static), and Thompson’s vocals (he often sounds like a less histrionic Richard Hell), when present, are about all that threads these tracks together. Perhaps something is lost in lumping together what were once concise salvos announcing where Thompson was headed in one amorphous mass. Once, these were meant to be distillations of whatever witch’s brew he was stirring up at a given moment, able to serve as solitary beacons lighting up a vast, darkened plain of musical possibility if given the chance and the time to sink in. But here, all the songs crammed onto a seventy-five minute CD, the absorption time critical to appreciating them is compressed, collapsed upon itself, and finally flattened out, making Thompson’s risk-taking career sound a bit like perverse dilettantism. Still, despite the presentation, the restless imagination detectable on every Red Krayola release shines through, absolving this set of any accusations of incoherence leveled against it.
The collection begins with a chugging prog-rockish instrumental (“Woof”) and progresses from there to vaguely countrified, psychedelic folk-blues (“Old Tom Clark” and “Pig Ankle Strut”). Then, rather abruptly, we’re square in the golden age of new wave, first with a couple of live cuts—the brilliant, prescient “Wives in Orbit”, which synthesizes the best Devo and Talking Heads had to offer with the more extremely fractured song sense of Doc at the Radar Station-era Beefheart, and the more disarticulated “Yik Yak”. Then, bleating horns make their first appearance on the reggae-inflected “Micro-chips and Fish”, and continue to make their presence felt on the next half dozen songs, two of which feature a shrill female vocalist and seem like warped attempts at disco (“Born in Flames” and “An Old Man’s Dream”), one which is a Zappaesque Uncle Meat pastiche (“The Story So Far”), and another few plodders with their words recited in German. The echo applied to the rhythm section on these tracks is reminiscent of the production approach on Public Image Ltd.‘s Second Edition, achieving the same clinical, remote tone, evoking the same soulless zombie dance. The best song in this mode, “The Sword of God”, pairs an hyperactive bass line with a lyric about the Crusades, delivered in Thompson’s most pained falsetto, that seems grimly appropriate to the current American political scene.
Much of the remainder of the disc is taken up with brittle dirges, on which Thompson’s aloof, oblique sensibility seems to have curdled. His vocals become more self-conscious, almost snide, while the backbeats become more leaden and the overdubbed noises more abrasive. “Your Body Is Hot” is so simultaneously sullen and chaotic, its singing so desperately discordant, that it demands comparison to fellow Texan Jandek’s troubling oeuvre. Here, the music has become completely involuted, virtually inaccessible, hermetic. It takes a determined listener to continue on in this forbidding terrain.