Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Red Krayola with Art & Language "Five American Portraits" (Drag City)

Whenever I go to one of those highbrow silent movie screenings where some instrumental jazz or noise or avant garde band makes random squonkings during Buster Keaton's antics or the Klan's heroic birthing of a nation or the ominous sleep walking in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari I always think how awesome it would be if you cut out the silent flick's title cards and a country, or hardcore, or garage rock, or rap group just did a musical accompaniment involving absolutely literal wordy vocals that redundantly described every action on screen and correctly said all the dialogue as the character's spoke. This collection of songs trumps me fantasy exercise in literalism. These vocals meticulously describe actual portraits of five iconic Americans in clinical, non-rhyming, impassionate visual detail. For example: "A wisp of grey hair at the left temple, a shadow at the forward edge of the right sideburn, a shadow above and between the teeth, a shadow at the point of the chin, extending to the right of President Jimmy Carter." This dispassionate approach means that politics don't encroach upon the artistry. Thus, though Carter would rarely be confused with George Bush II, this corresponding description of Mayo Thompson's fellow Texan judges him not: "The hair from the top of the right of the head to the left temple a patch of hair over the left temple, creases in the left forehead." Even Rachel Maddow would be hard pressed to find Iraq war criticism in that passage. But of course, Red Krayola's Thompson, even under the influence of legendary conceptual art collective Art & Language, certainly abandons the literal lyrics in the sure-to-be free, expansive and weird music, right? Um, yes and resoundingly no. There are passages of "The Eyes of Texas" for Bush. interpolations of "Georgia on my Mind" for Carter and Bo Diddley's "Roadrunner" for Wile E. Coyote, and best of all "Paint it Black" for artist Ad Reinhardt, who, of course, painted it black ( I couldn't recognize the heroic and cowboy John Wayne music). But there are also excursions into free sounds (some extremely lengthy, John Wayne's ambles into the sunset with shofar-like horn, ominous drumming, and crashing sounds for fifteen minutes) and minimalist takes on traditional American music, all expertly kept at the same measured tone as the descriptions, sonically elevating the "one liners" of the literal-minded song choices. Although it's hard to say "one-liners" because you don't want to outright call this a joke -- I've seen Thompson be funny, but always with a deadpan, so it's hard to say when he's joking. But, fuck it, I'm going to call this a novelty record, and file on the Neil Hamburger and comedy drum instruction DVD side of my Drag City shelf rather than the art rock and freak folk side. Meaning I will listen to it a lot more than Gastr del Sol.

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