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Music Review: The Red Krayola With Art & Language – Five American Portraits

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I have been a Red Krayola fan since accidentally discovering them in the late Seventies. There was a great magazine called Zig-Zag back then, and one issue included a flexi-disc of “Hurricane Fighter Plane.” A year later I found the Soldier-Talk LP gathering dust in my local Tower Records import bin, and my conversion was complete.

Back in those prehistoric, pre-Google days, getting information about a band as willfully obscure as the Red Krayola really took some effort. I later found out that my “Hurricane Fighter Plane” flexi was a re-recorded version of a song from their debut album, Parable Of Arable Land (1967).

The group hailed from the same acid-drenched mid-Sixties Houston scene as the 13th Floor Elevators, whose own Roky Erickson helped out on organ. I also found out that the name was more or less a pseudonym for Mayo Thompson, the band being whoever he happened to use at the time of recording or performing.

I had not heard much from the group in some time, though, and was pretty excited to find out they had a new CD coming out. Five American Portraits sounded like a wild concept, its basic premise being to take five iconic American figures and “interpret” them musically.

The five Americans the group chose were an intriguing lot: Wile E. Coyote, President George W. Bush, President Jimmy Carter, John Wayne, and (artist) Ad Reinhart. Given Thompson's history, I figured it would be interesting. True to form, Five American Portraits is a fascinating conceptual piece.

I expected each cut to be instrumental, given the subject matter, and was surprised to find that there were lyrics. But the “lyrics” are not really lyrics at all, just physical descriptions. Take these, from “Wile E. Coyote”

The lower region of the inner surface of the left ear,
The iris of the left eye.

A bit of fur at the extreme upper right of the cheek,
A highlight on the nose
Of Wile E. Coyote.

Funny? Cute? Sure. But the real action is in the music The Red Krayola and British collaborators Art & Language came up with. By taking the motifs of various well-known compositions and adapting them, Five American Portraits does a nice job of capturing the essence of each subject.

For Wile E. Coyote they use Bo Diddley's “Roadrunner.” President George W. Bush gets a whole bunch of Texas tunes, such as “The Eyes Of Texas.” President Jimmy Carter is represented by (what else?) “Georgia On My Mind.” Big John Wayne’s theme is adapted from the Max Steiner score to the classic film The Searchers.

Finally, artist Ad Reinhart is subjected to a bit of an inside artistic joke as his portrait consists of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata No. 6,” incorporating the signature riff of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” For those familiar with Sixties avant-garde art, Reinhart was (in)famous for painting his canvasses in strict shades of black.

Of the five tracks, I found the fifteen-minute “John Wayne” to be far and away the most compelling. In addition to Steiner’s score, “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and “Dixie’s Land” are incorporated into the whole. The song also features musical whirlwind Jim O’Rourke on bass.

Five American Portraits is an absorbing slice of artistic fun from a master prankster, one who has been at it for over four decades now. As the title of their second album put it, God Bless The Red Krayola And All Who Sail With It.

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About Greg Barbrick