Skeletons People

[Shinkoyo/Crammed; 2011]

Styles: experimental rock, prog rock
Others: Joan of Arc, Dirty Projectors, Karate

On the closing title track of Skeletons’ new album, People, vocalist Matt Mehlan has some consoling to do. After an album’s worth of spinning tales concerning needless death and misfortune, “People” is the warm hug and pat on the back to let you know that everything is going to be all right after all. “No matter how bad it gets/ You are still with us” is the mantra repeated along with assurances that, in the end, we are all just people and therefore should never believe we are alone no matter how boxed-in our bad experiences or negative thoughts should make us feel. This sentiment is glaringly obvious and simplistic but somehow it always seems to resonate. If you’re going to hold Mehlan accountable for such a saccharine stance, then you’d have to do the same for the Dalai Lama. But what makes Mehlan’s emotionalism on this specific track succeed is the fact that it comes as a sort of palate cleanser at the end of some fairly grizzly accounts of real life tragedy.

It’s no coincidence then that this album, Skeleton’s sixth during a succession of different monikers employed since 2004, is titled People. People, their trials and tribulations, uncertainties and unfair endings, are Mehlan’s subjects. Skeletons is ostensibly his project, having paired down the band’s previously sprawling lineup over the years to include only a few collaborators, this time being joined once again by Jason McMahon and Jonathan Leland. 2005’s Git and 2007’s Lucas, both released on Ghostly International, are by far the project’s most acclaimed albums. Those two records were incredibly ambitious and essentially indefinable, featuring a kitchen-sink approach that successfully managed to meld everything from raucous afrobeat to sleek glitch pop. Mehlan has since abandoned his alchemist’s ambitions for a more restrained approach, although “restrained” is a relative term here and only signifies that Mehlan & co. keep their multi-instrumental talents well within the wheelhouse of rock and jazz permutations.

A few of the tracks concern specific people and their unfortunate ends. Opener “L’il Rich” is about a gang member from Mehlan’s neighborhood in NYC who, we are informed in the first lines of the record, got his face shot off. Over placid guitar plucking, Mehlan raises questions about emotional responsibility and exactly who should feel angry: him, the kid’s family, or the cops whose job it is to clean up dead kids. Like some introspection-born epiphany, Mehlan interrogates himself over lithe, bombastic harp flourishes and Zach Hill-level drumming: “I still believe in people/ I think I still believe in people.” The tracks ends up marrying the story of L’il Rich’s gang violence-related death with the tragic slaying of Sean Bell, an unarmed man whom the NYPD shot 50 times — both deaths avoidable and unavoidable at the same time.

Two other tracks broach the topic of human misfortune by addressing specific instances of the dark side of human nature. “Wal-Mart and the Ghost of Jimmy Damour” deals with the grim death of the Wal-Mart temp worker who was infamously trampled to death at a Black Friday sale in 2008. Conversely, the subject of “Tania Head” was a victim of her own designs, suffering only a symbolic death as she was outed as not having been present at 9/11 even though she had created an incredible story and rose to fame to become the head of the World Trade Center Survivors Network. Both tracks are essentially lyrics-driven, a bit of a surprising trait coming from a band that, in the past, has always been more interested in wildly creative sonic explorations and sharp stylistic diversions. Indeed, many of the songs here show a streamlined approach, an often tightly-wound, surprisingly conservative backbone of guitar, bass, and drums.

Skeletons still manage to find plenty of elbow room even within these self-imposed confines. “Grandma” features Boris-like dirges amongst an otherwise needly, metronomic prog bounce. “Barack Obama Blues” is a gorgeous nine-minute number that is bubbly and effervescent, never really exploding after some extensive jamming but instead reaching a cacophonous plateau. It’s the song where Skeletons most freely spread their wings (and ultimately my favorite track on the album for that very reason). At album number six, it’s good to see that Skeletons are willing to experiment, even if experimenting means they are in fact paring down their sound. Despite this limitation, Matt Mehlan and his collaborators never seem bereft of ideas. Perhaps, after a time embracing simplicity, Skeletons will again unshackle themselves and pursue the sort of ecstatically eclectic sound that made Git and Lucas records to which I still return. There’s no doubt that they are capable.

Links: Skeletons - Shinkoyo/Crammed

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