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.
The five songs here are “tributes” to five Americans: Wile. E. Coyote, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, John Wayne, and Ad Reinhardt; the tracks detail the various facial features, wrinkles, odd creases and distinctive mouth characteristics of each person. The music is subdued and lightly poppy, with a few quotes from patriotic songs blended in. Elvis Costello is credited, famously, with saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, and so too can Five American Portraits seem a similar daunting task for trying to paint with words. However, those chosen for portraits are so well-known (save for the painter Reinhardt) that the tunes do create explicit mental pictures. The first, “Wile E. Coyote,” works best, although given Bush’s polarizing nature, the 12-minute song devoted to him has more of an emotional feel to it. For some reason, “John Wayne” is the longest, clocking in at over 15 minutes.
The one constant in the Red Krayola throughout its 40-year, off-again/on-again life has been the mercurial Mayo Thompson. Five American Portraits shows that he has lost none of his uncompromising, borderline career-suicidal style. Whether with free-form noise and psychedelia or arcane hermtic concepts such as this one, Red Krayola has long been fearlessly creating a portrait of the artist that does not compromise. Even if you only listen to this once, do it.