Without a doubt, this release is one of the most strange things that I've heard in some time. Originally released back in 1968, Performing Musical Interpretations of the Paintings Of Paul Klee is a completely bizarre amalgamation of pop, folk, and psych rock music that both sounds like several different releases from the same era and also completely unlike them as well. The National Gallery was actually a studio creation, a group of musicians assembled by jazz composer Chuck Mangione and producer / arranger Roger Karshner (who called the songs "electronic paintings"). While there's nothing truly electronic about the work by today's definition, one can hear some basic musical similarities to The Zombies' classic Odyssey and Oracle, which was released the same year, along with a slew of other touchpoints.
One of the things that makes it really stick out is the completely bizarre vocals. Of course, it wouldn't be a late 60s album without some lyrics and vocals that are completely over the top and at times nonsensical, but listening to The National Gallery I've found myself not only groaning a couple times, but laughing aloud as well. The album opens with "Barbaric, Classical, Solemn," and the group basically explores the definitions of the three title words, both lyrically and melodically. Overlapping vocal layers express each delicately while an almost instrumental hip-hop beat, string flourishes, some rough guitars and even an organ blare highlight the track.
It could very well be my modern perspective creeping in again, but it seems that "Diana In The Autumn Wind" finds the group tackling Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the track is a gem, with understated verses and more boisterous choruses with horns and more vocal choirs. In terms of overall success, "Boy With Toys" may very well be the standout on the album. Grooving with a seriously funky rhythm and some scorching guitars sections, the song takes on the Oedipal complex with what are some of the most hilarious lyrics I've heard in some time.
In other places, the more playful lyrics are simply a bit too silly, but even at these points the music more than makes up for things. "A Child's Game" finds the group twisting perspectives, imagining adults envisioning themselves as a child would. Meanwhile, back and forth male and female vocals, orchestral arrangements, and light guitars propel the song forward. "Fear Behind The Curtain" is another strange track, with almost tribal sounding polyrhytms and more aggressive vocals. Lyrically, the group is about as out-there as ever, spitting out stream-of-consciousness lines before tying everything together at the end with chanted lines that enlighten the oddities before it. Apparently the album sold very poorly upon release, while both Mangione and Karshner went onto much bigger and well-known projects soon afterward. Although it's not as strong as some of its contemporaries, it's definitely an overlooked release that has a slew of great stuff on it. If you're a fan of the era, or weird musical oddities in general, this one is definitely worth hunting down.