The Red Krayola with Art & Language Five American Portraits

[Drag City; 2010]

Styles: conceptual art-rock, Americana
Others: The Raincoats, Jim O’Rourke

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. Here, we have The Red Krayola with conceptual group Art & Language, and judging by the latter’s previous collaborations, these are real intellectuals we’re dealing with. You might learn something from unraveling these puns yourself, which would ultimately be very rewarding.

That being said: Five American Portraits contains five tracks of musical puns, each containing a lyrical description of a portrait of an important American figure. Spoiler alert! Oh, what? The rest of the blogosphere is spilling the beans? They picked up on the Ad Reinhardt “Paint It Black” pun? What about the Jimmy Carter reading of “Georgia On My Mind?” Considering these are not peanut farmer jokes, clearly the blogosphere is full of true intellectuals as well. I must be in good company.

But once the riddles have been revealed and the temple of knowledge swings open her yonic doors, the real reason this record warrants a second listen is the music itself. Taken as a whole, the album has an ekphrastic quality, portraying an allegorical America, much in the way that Greil Marcus describes The Basement Tapes as “Kill Devil Hills” in The Old, Weird America (a.k.a. Invisible Republic).

“Portrait of George W. Bush” is a jaunt through the pastoral, the prairies of Texas thatched with railroad ties. “Portrait of Wile E. Coyote” recalls the way your dad’s blues band butchers Bo Diddley in the basement of your youth. Even the sleazy stumble home of the lounge singer serves to impress the image of the lefty-as-punching-bag in “Portrait of Jimmy Carter.” “Portrait of Ad Reinhardt” brings to mind Sunday morning coffee and NPR. The allegorical Albert Ayler pokes his black fist into the kitchen window and interrupts all of these precious moments with some shredding skronk and squeal to say, “Hey! Don’t forget we’re part of this country too! When do I get MY song?” Jimmy Carter nods his head in solidarity, even though Ayler got his in John Wilkes Booze’s Five Pillars of Soul.

I’d like to think that, in The Red Krayola’s dialectical America, the lack of racial and sexual diversity is a conscious decision, being that a cartoon underdog gets up to bat first. It is good to remember that Mayo Thompson, for all of his big-strong, psychedelic Texan cred, is after all an expatriate and a professor of the arts. Subtle jabs at the misogyny and racism of America are certainly within his scope, beyond this lofty punning.

Gina Birch’s vocals are a nice touch to break up Mayo’s ‘patriarchal iron fist,’ but she sounds like an anemic Dagmar Krause, the queen of whimsical art-rock delivery. Whatever would Slapp Happy do to patronize the red, white, and blue? There is some great interplay on the George W. Bush track and the epic of John Wayne. Other than that, not too much is memorable here. Much to my chagrin, when the album was over, I had “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad” looping in my noggin.

If you follow The Red Krayola on Twitter, you must be aware that Thompson and the gang will be moved to a pre-11 o’clock news time slot, because it has proven increasingly draining on Drag City’s finances to produce a fully-orchestrated episode of Joanna Newsom five nights a week. Let’s hope the retooling provides them with an apt ‘lead in.’

Links: The Red Krayola with Art & Language - Drag City

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