Skeletons might not fall under the wide umbrella that has been established in this column—they’re the farthest thing from the garage rock and noise universe that we usually cover—but that’s beside the point. Matt Mehlan and his continually evolving and revolving cast of musicians make music that is still well beyond the current, and consequently, time has yet to catch up with Skeletons, hence the inclusion of Skeletons’ latest album, People, in the corner of our zine concerned with primitive futures. People is emblematic of that tag. It’s an album that could be easily painted into other, more compartmentalized genre-corners—be it free jazz, progressive rock, improvised raga, or Dada-esque lyrical puzzles—but instead it wholeheartedly embraces giving the listener a healthy challenge of deciphering how Mehlan and crew (which here includes Jason MacMahon and Jonathan Leland) arrived at this point. In comparison to 2008’s Money, which appeared to be Skeletons’ attempt at more concise and easily digestible dub-dance psych tracks, People is smoother and more elegiac, but piecing it all together has become more intense than ever. Take for instance the dizzying, wind-up piano lines that layer one on top of each other throughout “More Than the One Thing.” The song would be sufficient with just a singular melody underneath Mehlan’s quixotic prose about searching for that “one thing,” (what that is, is never revealed—more puzzles), but it builds into a dense sonic journey over its three minutes. There’s the addition of a swell of horns, a few 16-bit soft-bombs drop out of nowhere, and a disorienting sample of applause throws the entire rhythm off course. Then another piano line, then another, until the whole thing bursts under the pressure and a symbiosis is reached that becomes intoxicating in its return to normalcy. That’s the bread-and-butter of Skeletons. It’s the order that comes from discombobulated chaos that has steered them out of welcoming circles of jam-band enthusiasts and textbook jazz geeks, a mutant sound that constantly defies categorization. Perhaps that’s been their downfall all along: the overt refusal to sit still.
Much of that separation comes from People’s subject matter. Never one to shy away from a concept with Skeletons, Mehlan’s vignettes here are composed with a corporeal quality, each one telling the “real life” tale of the people that he meets every day, and for those who he can’t conjure firsthand accounts, he cobbles together surreal and skewed character studies. Hence the primal groove of the rhythms here, the many differing shades and moods that compete against each other (many times within the same song), and the worldly scope of the record as a whole. Perhaps that’s been Skeletons’ greatest strength all along: the ability to sound as if they’ve been everywhere, even if they’ve only ever practiced in a warehouse in Brooklyn. And even though there is an outlier virtuosity in every movement, it never seems studious. “Barack Obama Blues” spreads out that trait over nearly nine minutes of shifts—from a finger-picked avant-folk intro to Animal Collective-esque ambient meandering and onto a finale that divulges in an all-out freak-jam—and converges at a point where that melange echoes as deep space detritus. “Grandma” is constructed with similar communal orchestras of unhinged psych before becoming something close to King Crimson at a climax. These are heavy times and Skeletons want to reflect with a display of heavy morphing; drop the needle in any spot on this record and you don’t hear the same band twice. It’s telling that People will be a joint release with Crammed Discs, the label that introduced the world to Konono No. 1, as Mehlan’s arrangements, at their core, resemble that built out of nothing Congotronic funk most. And it’s easy to see how Skeletons could find kindred spirits in musicians that find inspiration in the ugly and unwashed, rather than the sterile trappings of jazz and prog. Of course, there’s another layer to People entirely, which deals with unraveling the political and philosophical meaning of Mehlan’s lyrics. But that would require another 700 words and another couple of nights alone, stewing with an album that never seems to take a shape. People is all the better for its amorphous and infinite possibility.
Kevin J. Elliott