Thompson's twins

There's an anecdote that Red Krayola singer-guitarist Mayo Thompson likes to tell about philosopher of science Sydney Morgenbesser. "He's at some philosophical conference," Thompson begins, "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 delight in the story isn't surprising: Its air of intellectual combativeness, and the tension between its cerebral set-up and colloquial punchline, are also features of the records that Thompson, the 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 language, music, and other representational systems tend to outstrip our attempts to generalize about them -- another thread uniting the Krayola's various incarnations, from its psychedelic-era origins to its present form as a geographically scattered conglomerate in which Thompson wields more seniority than control. As he puts it toward the end of our lengthy conversation, "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."

The 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 Pasadena's Art Center College of Design 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, in Houston back in 1966. Typically, the packaging -- and Thompson -- maintain some mystery about who played what, or when.

The disc opens with "George III," a minimal guitar piece recorded in England during the '80s, which cross-fades 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's been a Krayola associate since the mid-'80s. After this, there's a burst of clattering improvisation, topped with Art Center colleague Stephen Prina's calm repetition of what Thompson's just sung. Similarly, sometime-vocalist Sandy Yang (who came into the fold as an Art Center undergrad) begins wailing the lyrics to "There There Betty Betty" immediately after the "straight" version is finished. And so it goes, song and non-song 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 alternated 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, include 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," 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?"

In a separate phone interview, Tom Watson -- the guitarist formerly of Slovenly and Overpass, and a 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 their peculiar handling, the songs are among the most accessible the band has released, and after a few plays, even the most difficult sections reveal a wealth of structure and detail. It's too restless and irreverent to be termed a "career retrospective," but it is something arguably more worthwhile: an extended inquiry into what it might mean to file three decades in the contested space between popular music and contemporary art under one slightly silly two-word name.

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