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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Hola Red Krayola!
by Anthony Mariani
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Blues Hollers and Hellos

by The Red Krayola
Drag City, Chicago
41 minutes, 19 seconds

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Finding honesty in music is tricky, especially in pop. Lurking around every insouciant guitar riff or stylish lyric is the preponderance of self-conscious artfulness. Looking to pop music to be engaged Ķ- as opposed to merely distracted, as is the current rage Ķ- takes a brave soul. Who wants to be "had," after all? And it requires an even bolder (sillier?) soul to look to The Red Krayola for truth. The suspicion that youžre falling for a tall tale taints every out-of-tune, out-of-tempo sound.
      That truth exists in pop music -- no matter how avantgarde or commercial -- is unquestionable. Countless performers have sweat and bled pop music for the sake of communicating ideas. The Red Krayolažs new and lengthy EP, Blues Hollers and Hellos is a testament to the idea that truth looks brighter, sounds louder, seems more concrete when delivered in raw and unrehearsed bursts. Typical to that Red Krayola anti-swing, sincerity supercedes nearly everything else, including the ability to play instruments correctly or sing in tune and tempo. Composed of previously unreleased material, Blues Hollers and Hellos may be just the tonic to the din of shamelessly seductive strivers in see-through pants and stilettos, and the promise of genuine music making come alive.
      The most wondrous moment in Blues Hollers and Hellos occurs when the band, led by frontman and founder Mayo Thompson, "noodles" for several minutes to the repetitive stress disorder-inducing beat of "Container of Drudgery." Thompson, the conductor (Ižm reluctant to call him "songwriter"), uses repetition -Ķ much like a club DJ -Ķ to heighten awareness to the physical. When the listener hears the same rhythm over and over, he is forced by the sound to reflect inward. (The first thing any sane person does after hearing the same bar repeated for the tenth time is ask himself, "Why the hell am I listening to this and why arenžt I covering my ears?") And any reaction to the drone enables the music. This is The Red Krayolažs way of balancing the truth of their work against the truth of the listeneržs ears. Somewhere in between is communication. Beautiful or not, this is art.
      And since pop is ostensibly the marriage of lyric and melody, and since this Red Krayola material is ostensibly pop (as opposed to jazz or sonic art), the listener is as vehemently confronted with lyrics which speak of the same disregard for polish that epitomizes the bandžs "musicianship" as he is with organized racket. Thompson is one of those throwbacks to the artsy fartsy 60s, using as much of himself as of current events to make grand pronouncements on the state of his and his bandžs music. Pervasive commercialism and co-dependence (on drugs or people or ideas) make frequent appearances in Thompsonžs work. Like a civics professor backed by a deranged lounge act, Thompson infuses his lectures with sarcasm and snaps platitudes like he means it. "Thatžs all well and good," he sing-talks (his common mode of delivery) on "Magnificence as Such," "But what about freedom? / What is freedom? / The capacity to choose." A rare instance where an overtly political message meshes with its musical backdrop, such a line lends at least the appearance of sincerity to the bandžs explorations into one-to-one contact with listeners. Even if youžve never met Mayo Thompson you are inclined to believe he means what hežs saying, from his declarations of righteousness to his infantile descriptions of fictional characters. His honesty is admirable and makes for some pretty decent listening.
      No other self-proclaimed and practicing noise band is as poised to offer an honest alternative to mainstream pop (which includes the work of any band that can be readily categorized) than these old-timers. Formed in Houston, Texas, in 1966, The Red Crayola Ķ- as they were called before a well-known crayon maker voiced objections Ķ- essentially birthed the art rock movement in the states. After a random performance in a shopping mall, the band was duly signed by the International Artists label, which also included in its roster Roky Ericksonžs 13th Floor Elevators. Ericksonžs band looked downright commercial compared to Thompsonžs outfit. As interested in deconstructing the rock vocabulary as in reacting to their social and immediate surroundings, The Red Krayola, during their brief stay with Internationa, churned out a couple of noisy albums, and attracted a cult following in and around hep cat centers such as New York and San Francisco. The Red Krayola was a known commodity until the late-1960s when Thompson, ever true to his muse, began trying his hand at other modes of artistic expression. Following a brief resurgence in the 1970s, the Red Krayola remained off the off-the-radar radar for nearly a decade. Interest in the band resurfaced in the mid-1990s, when Chicago imprint Drag City signed The Red Krayola to a deal. Toned down and tuned up, The Red Krayola has strayed into accessibility. The Red Krayola remains a true alternative.
      Nothing The Red Krayola does is easy listening. As with any ponderous artistic excursion the receiver is required to be receptive to the challenge. A recommendation for an evening with The Red Krayola involves dim lighting, comfortable seating and copious amounts of weed. Every time I listen to the Red Krayola I make sure I block off at least two hours; one to wrestle with the sound, the other to recuperate. And try this at home. Unlike with, say, classic jazz or contemporary classical, anti-music like the kind The Red Krayola produces doesnžt jibe with a jog or subway ride or car trip. Therežs no soundtrackability there Ķ- unless the movie youžre living is of frenetic pace changes and irresolute personalities and takes place on Mars. The first time I heard The Red Krayola was during a visit to a friendžs house in the bandžs hometown last year. My ears heard plain noise, but my heart heard something all too human in the methodical beats and silly if ordinary words. This is where The Red Krayolažs most winning attribute asserted itself. The band hardly takes itself seriously and uses humor to defuse even the most confrontational moments of songs. When after repeated listening I soon learned that the band not only signified on rock and blues but also on itself and other art rockers, I was immediately smitten. Here was a band that could satisfy anyonežs longings for brainy stimulation while simultaneously yanking a smile or two from anyonežs face. Climbing a tall-but-not-as-tall-as-a-mountain hill probably never brought on such delight as withstanding a Red Krayola tune.
      Part of the reason Ižve been so enamored with The Red Krayola stems from my interest in watching things fail. A Generation Xer, Ižve grown up under the rubric that failure in art is glorious Ķ and true. In pop, this state of mind came to the fore at around the time the Velvet Underground announced its withdrawal from the mainstream with White Light/White Heat. Being popular and cool was no longer about being understood or generally fitting in. Individualityžs taking over of personal vision was, now with enlightened pop stars like VU, Captain Beefheart and to some extent The Doors, complete. Other bands continued failing and attracting mainly youth culturežs intellectuals and outsiders or both. The success of grunge in the early 1990s can be largely attributed to the avantgardežs influence. Kurt Cobain just put a disinterested face on it and sold it as something new. Like early avantgarders like VU and later Sonic Youth, Cobain and his band, Nirvana, played directly into their speakers and cut songs in few takes with minimal post-production work. Seeing the iconic Cobain slouch around on stage, and hearing him slur his words and fudge his solos was baring witness to failure in all its glorious incarnations. We ate it up.
      No less dramatic than grunge, The Red Krayola sound is glorious failure unbound. The work is for the most part timeless. Aside from production value nothing on Blues Hollers and Hellos indicates the approximate year of any particular song. The band avoids referencing or quoting styles of the day. Songs themselves remain in stasis, a continual state of becoming. And as soon as one appears to be turning into something, it ends. The let down is diabolical. You have to smile knowing that the band is conscious of its tricks. The Red Krayola uses their place in pop music history and your outside knowledge of them to augment their impact. Context accounts for nearly every moment of a song like track four, "Is There?" With an electronic drumbeat going its own direction, a bluesy guitar going its own direction and a synthesizer going its own direction, the song is as dependent on its directionlessness as you are on piecing everything together, per the human tendency to find logic in chaos. You never knew finding truth in pop music could be so challenging and rewarding.

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