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Wednesday, October 22, 2014 
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+ Donato Wharton - Body Isolations
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+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
+ The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea
+ Motorpsycho - Black Hole/Blank Canvas
+ The Red Krayola - Introduction
+ Metal Hearts - Socialize
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+ Sondre Lerche And The Faces Down Quartet - Duper Sessions
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Introduction
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The boundaries between symbol and reality are permeable on this latest album from cult legend Mayo Thompson, as poetic icons laden with meaning (including Puff the magic dragon, a foul-smelling polecat and a squid-devouring female) saunter around casually doing their business. In an album that starts with the recognition that "To nail down a meaning is to make something leaning on nothing at all" (from the brief opening, title cut) and finishes with the observation "Everything you ever wanted is here/ Everything you dreamed of is true," what's real and what's imagined (and what's the difference anyway?) balance precariously against a gently surreal backing of jazz, country, rock and folk-leaning music.

The Red Krayola, formed nearly 40 years ago by the eccentric Thompson, has had a long and storied history, beginning in Austin's psychedelic scene in 1968 and winding its way through skewed-folk, proto-industrial, freewheeling prog and post-punk forms. Thompson's musical collaborators have been an eclectic bunch, including, at times, Gina Burch of the Raincoats, Epic Soundtracks of Swell Maps, and Lora Logic; he was once a member of Pere Ubu, as well. For this record, Thompson has gathered an exceptionally talented, eccentric band, joining again with such familiar faces as keyboard player Stephen Prina and multi-instrumentalist Tom Watson and adding Chicago mainstays like John McEntire and Noel Kupersmith to the mix. The arrangements are subtle and pared down, weaving mournful textures underneath Thompson's abstract lyrics. Scottish accordionist Charlie Abel's work is particularly striking, its reedy melancholy meshing inextricably with Thompson's frayed poetry.

Each song takes on its own character, fusing bits of jazz and pop with piercingly intelligent lyrics. There are songs that lean into Giant Sand-ish country forms ("Breakout"), others that flirt with lounge-lizard jazz ("Cruise Boat"), and still others that would suggest the Kinks, if they had gotten a Ph.D. in philosophy ("Vexations"). "Note to Selves," with its gorgeous piano opening and wordless "ba ba" chorus, might be a big 1970s pop song, if it were not quite so precisely, literately worded. The mesmeric instrumental "L.G.F" allows the instrumentals space to breathe and evolve, its slow-changing guitar chords building chilled and fusion-esque soundscapes, an odd reverberating percussive sound punctuating the measures.

Lyrically, Thompson observes surreal landscapes with transparent realism, creating an odd juxtaposition of clarity and dreaminess. "Puff," which continues the story of Peter, Paul and Mary's friendly monster, is perhaps the most accessible of these songs, its oversized melody rolling in like a tide. "Cruise Boat," by contrast, is prickly and fascinating, one of the oddest of a series of very eccentric songs. The tune begins with a litany of meaning-of-life ideas, things that people might conceivably arrange their existence around (ending with a chorus of "fame, science, looove"). It then moves onto a list of colonial conquests, France and Algeria, France and Vietnam, USSR and Afghanistan, etc. etc. There's no explanation, no connective tissue, just a series of items. You are left to make your own sense of them. This would be thought-provoking enough by itself, but the music complicates things even further. The song has a lounge-y lilt to it, its melody dipping and turning and floating, the interstices embellished with liquid jazz piano fills and staccato up-beat guitar notes. When Thompson croons "Chech-ny-ahh," his voice piano-bar smooth, there's an almost palpable shift in the reality continuum. "Greasy Street," with its ominous off-tuned guitar tangle and intermittent cymbal roll drama (it sounds like Old Time Relijun turned way down), has the same sort of disturbing nocturnal quality, a sense that something's ever so slightly off, but what? "Everything is fine," Thompson reassures us on "Vexations," but the song's celebratory chorus of "Life... life..." is undercut by verses about radiation and not being able to take it anymore.

Listening to Introduction is like viewing the world through someone else's glasses, skewed, disturbing and perhaps causing a bit of vertigo. These are fascinating landscapes, though, observed with idiosyncratic intelligence and played with subtle skill. If you're just coming to Red Krayola, as I was, this late-career CD can be a fine introduction to a striking and original talent — and a gateway to Thompson's earlier work.


by Jennifer Kelly




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