Release Date: Jan 26, 2010
Record label: Drag City
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative
The last Red Krayola collaboration with Art & Language, Sighs Trapped by Liars, issued in 2007 was a genuine surprise: it was, for the most part, accessible -- by RK's standards anyway -- and surprisingly gentle. That said, it stands in stark contrast to this strange, quirky, occasionally maddening Five American Portraits. The portraits referred to in the title are of Wile E.
“Ridges and creases / high on the middle forehead / The right temple near the eyebrow / A small ridge under the right eye / The right side of the tip of the nose / The opening of the right nostril / The middle lower lip / The inner ear of the right ear.” Can you tell who it is yet? It’s George W. Bush, of course, or at least part of his head, as seen (or rather heard) in the second of five “American portraits” in words and music by legendary experimental rock outfit the Red Krayola, in collaboration with conceptual art collective Art & Language. Individually, each group’s work goes back over four decades.
For anyone capable of finding Red Krayola's burr-laden rock comforting, Mayo Thompson has likely achieved Lou Reed-status: as long as someone's playing an electric guitar slowly and with an appropriate cadence, the man's voice contains a familiar grace. But whatever level of devotion he engenders, Thompson seems determined to test. On Five American Portraits, Thompson and friends offer very long, very literal descriptions of five characters set loosely to a host of classic tunes.
The Red Krayola have had a long history of alternately confusing and inspiring their listeners -- it's one of those cult bands that more people name-drop than actually listen to. Five American Portraits will not earn the band new fans, most likely, and may only inspire a spin or two from experienced fans. But this is a record that has its merits, mostly due to its odd, hypnotic concept and benign perversity.
Many discs in my collection must be prefaced with some sort of conceptual screed before I share them with my friends. Clearly, I feel quite at home with ‘art rock,’ and it’s even better when said art rock has a sense of humor. In the case of Mayo Thompson’s latest, Five American Portraits, the humor and the intricacies of concept are best left to the listener to uncover themselves.