The last Red Krayola collaboration with Art & Language, Sighs Trapped by Liars, issued in 2007 was a genuine surprise: it was, for the most part, accessible -- by RK's standards anyway -- and surprisingly gentle. That said, it stands in stark contrast to this strange, quirky, occasionally maddening Five American Portraits. The portraits referred to in the title are of Wile E. Coyote, President George W. Bush, President Jimmy Carter, John Wayne, and artist Ad Reinhardt. The front of the booklet contains a crudely drawn facial sketch; inside on lined paper are the barest of facial details -- one can only guess that the music is supposed to fill in the details. The lyrics in these "songs" are alternately sung by the Raincoats’ Gina Birch and RK instigator Mayo Thompson: “ . . . the inner ear/of the right ear/the underside/of the left eyelid/of President George W. Bush.” This poetic exercise persists throughout the entire album. The instrumental backing in each tune by Thompson, Tom Watson, Tom Rogerson, Alex Dower, and collaborator Jim O’Rourke evokes classic songs depending on the historical figure. In Coyote’s case it’s Bo Diddley's “Roadrunner”; in Bush’s it’s “Texas, Our Texas” and “The Eyes of Our Texas,” with a song by Thompson called “The New Eyes of Texas” woven in. Jimmy Carter is shaded by traces of “Georgia on My Mind,” while John Wayne's portrait is decorated with “Dixie” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” The wildest is Reinhardt’s, humorously illustrated by a Mozart piano sonata and the Rolling Stones' “Paint It Black.” Along the way -- of course -- there are all kinds of impromptu improvisations and snickering chaotic gestures by the instrumentalists. With this minute facial details as lyrics, however, the effect can be infuriating at times -- at least until they become mantra-like shadows inside the music itself. The RK has been making weirdly wonderful recordings for over 40 years, but this one, as lovely and angular as it is, is one the of the strangest. yet, it’s also -- if you stick with it -- among their most enjoyable.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek