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The Red Krayola with Art & Language - Five American Portraits

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Artist: The Red Krayola with Art & Language

Album: Five American Portraits

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jan. 20, 2010

I still cherish the description of British-American art collective Art & Language once given by Mayo Thompson, the head of four-decades-and-running concept/psych-rock outfit the Red Krayola: “the baddest bastards on the block.” Truth be known, I’ve lost touch with Art & Language’s recent form (except to mourn the passing of Charles Harrison in August 2009), so they may not be the ‘baddest bastards’ any more—but suffice to say, I’ve never seen art and theory with such rigour and such antagonistic, ornery force as their ’70s period.

Tellingly, Thompson first fetched up with Art & Language in the ’70s. The albums produced in that first blush, Corrected Slogans, Black Snakes and Kangaroo?, aren’t the most puzzling in the Red Krayola’s long career, but they are among the most formally intriguing. By shackling Marxist dialectic and art-historical commentary to rude, crabby post-punk music, Thompson created music that conducted itself with a perpetual question mark over its head. Nothing you think you understand, it seemed to say, makes any sense here. It was a very rigorous music performed with a strange ‘off-the-cuff’-ness that was permanently surprised by the recombinations and juxtapositions it coughed up. In line with the best post-punk, you could hear the musicians thinking as they played—and in some cases, you could hear them wondering what the hell was going on.

The five portraits here are of singular figures in American mythology: Wile E. Coyote, President George W Bush, President Jimmy Carter, John Wayne, and Ad Reinhardt. (Reinhardt, perhaps, deserves the sub-heading ‘American modern art mythology,’ but never mind.) Of course, those coming to portraiture-via-music will expect vague mythologizing via lyrics, a bit of mysticism, maybe some rock heroics (U2 does MLK, in other words). The Red Krayola, being the baddest bastards in modern rock, give you the minutest, most programmatic painterly detail of each portrait, framed by songs that riff on motifs lifted from other, apparently relevant songs. Most hilariously, Ad Reinhardt (the abstract artist who, in the ’60s, painted his canvases in shades of black) cops a Mozart Sonata and…The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.”

I’ve been borderline-obsessed with the Red Krayola for a long time now, but even I can admit that Thompson’s practice sometimes gets maddeningly diffuse. The ‘forced cohesion’ that he so values, and passed on to partisans like David Grubbs, is in fine form here. There’s an inherent clumsiness in the way he forces lyrics like “The iris and shadow beneath / The lid of the right eye, / A shadow of the inner corner of the left eye, / The opening of the left ear / Of President Jimmy Carter” against something that sounds like a defrocked 12-bar blues that’s still hard to process. Of course, this leads into a purple patch of messy free improvisation, before the Raincoats’ Gina Birch continues the tale. And on it goes.

If the last Red Krayola With Art & Language record, Sighs Trapped By Liars, surprised with its gentility, Thompson’s dialectical relationship to/with form pretty much dictated that its follow-up had to jut out at right angles from its predecessor. That push-me-pull-you is intrinsic to the Red Krayola’s practice, God bless them. It’s also what makes their history so uniquely and individually compelling.

By Jon Dale

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