“Fairest of All,” the opening track on Sighs Trapped by Liars, the third collaboration between the Red Krayola and Michael Baldwin’s British conceptual-art group Art & Language, hints at a fixation with mirrors that will recur throughout the album: “What the mirror sees it takes and never will return/ The spectacle you make/ Don’t waste time trying to learn.” This mirror concept (it also shows up in the liner notes) recalls the quintessential modernist theory of Japser Johns, who famously declared “what you see is what you get” in regard to modern art. But lead vocalists Elisa Randazzo and Sandy Yang (the most recent additions to the Red Krayola’s rotating lineup) and some beautifully crafted songs by underground veteran Mayo Thompson give Sighs Trapped by Liars a lot more than one dimension.
The complex history of the avant-rock group called the Red Krayola dates to the mid-’60s, when Thompson formed the band (originally called Red Crayola) in Houston. Through thirteen full-lengths and numerous world tours, Thompson (who produced albums for such bands as the Fall and Primal Scream and was at one time a member of Pere Ubu) has been the only constant. He first collaborated Art & Language for 1976’s Corrected Slogans, and Sighs Trapped by Liars is their first work together since Black Snakes (1983).
Art & Language’s lyrics often pose a challenge for Randazzo and Yang — the words don’t always match the voices. In “Pest,” for example, Art & Language revisits the concept of mirrors: “I look at the mirror and what do I see?/ A man who knows his history/ And he’s coming after me.” Taking Johns’s theory into consideration, the female pronunciation of looking into a mirror and seeing a man “coming after me” is an odd image, but knowing that a predominantly male group provided the lyrics offers an alternative perspective to “Pest” and other songs.
“Laughing at the Foot of the Cross” and “40,000 Words on a Chair” follow similar up-tempo grooves as the opener, oscillating between stagnant lyrical meditation backed by a lone guitar and the quicker tempos of the full band. The album stalls when the instrumentation is too lean and the lyrics too distant from the vocalists — most notably on the eight-minute “Four Stars: The Ideal Crew.” Still, through thirteen tracks, the intimate vocals of Yang and Randazzo are compelling and follow the sophisticated course of Thompson’s production.