Critics are routinely confused by the music of Brooklyn outfit Skeletons & The Kings of all Cities. Their sounds are commonly explained as a meeting of hard-edged, driven jangle-rock and the lounge intonations of Jamiroquai. Or they're defined at the crossroads where Philip Glass meets electronic funk and Chicago post-rock. But none of this categorizing interests the band's mastermind/vocalist Matt Mehlan, who says on the occasion of his latest record Lucas, "I really can't help the way it'll come out of me." He's most interested in his trespass into soul territory, and does feel a need to prove himself worthy of the genre. "The thing that's missing from a lot of new soul is some sort of non-commercial authenticity, a real emotional sexuality or spirituality." It's no stretch to suggest that the complexity of his tunes -- the same complexity that overwhelms the taxonomist -- is the product of a hard-working elusiveness, a quest to make music worthy of great ears.
Having founded the band (originally just Skeletons; then briefly Skeletons & The Girl-Faced Boys) several years ago at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Mehlan and associates have always operated with loving care on small stages. A cult audience is dependable at Brooklyn's most fashionable venues (they're regulars on the Todd P scene), but significant wider recognition has eluded the band. Not abrasive or assaulting, the typical Skeletons track abuts the work of TV on the Radio or Jamie Lidell, acts that have found considerably more mainstream acceptance. Indeed, 2005's remarkable Git is littered with undeniable pop hooks. But their music is always just slightly too avant, too challenging to appeal broadly; it asks for a bit more than the casual listen. In fact, the songs are marked by something extra, an anti-melodic layer moving beneath the music; the experience is never quite comfortable, deeply affected by ghostly guitar sonics or quiet drumbeats persistently refusing to match horns or vocals.
Lucas' first track, "What They Said," is a romp through foot
stomps, falsetto intonations, drums aping water drops and Caribbean
guitar. Says Mehlan of the queasy number, "I've always thought that was
a cheery song. Some people find it to be depressing. But from the first
note laid down, in terms of the sound this was a block party vibe."
Indeed, a video for "What They Said" features footage from a festival in
the Coney Island streets. But the discomfort in the lyrics is
unavoidable, and the butting up of moods throughout Lucas is
extreme -- as when the most unencumbered soul song is followed by a
fever dream called "Sicknesses." This is one of the skills that marks
M.I.A. (see "Sunshowers"), and Mehlan allows that he's "always wanted
the heaviest lyrics to play in the most smile-inducing song. I love it
when people sing pop songs really weird; the weirder the better."
Then again, this simple statement misrepresents the fraught project that is Lucas. Inspired largely by Mehlan's troubled brother, sent for his safety to a disciplinary school in the Dominican Republic, the album follows a boy removed from his home, journeying through the empty spaces of the American Midwest -- and coming finally to a Garden of Eden in rural Kansas. While on tour in the Sunflower State, the band came across an archetype-heavy cement-statue garden created by a local outsider artist; around the same time, the bandleader was hounded by dreams of a body-hair plague, shadows of the headshaving that initiated his brother's new boot camp existence. The record resulting from these epiphanies boasts its overwhelming share of mourning ("the weight of a person lost from your body"), false comforts and bad advice. But the mastermind maintains that he concludes with "the real kind of hopefulness" derived from standing on one's own two feet: "Eventually, people pull it off on their own. The balloons fly out into the sky once they're not tied down anymore."
Dramatic storylines and unstoppable instrumental layering aside, Skeletons is not a control-freakish, top-down affair. Mehlan is laid back about his composing process, and wants to be clear that his music is best when pulling from as many bandmates as possible. "The sacred part of making music disappeared long ago"; he describes his liberation, the day when he was no longer in thrall to the holed-up-in-the-basement megalomania so common among musical prodigies. Indeed, a casual affect is essential to Skeletons' success: The instrumental rigor and rapid mood-shifting only find their proper home in easy grooves. It is one of the Mehlan's great paradoxes that his social paranoia is expressed so casually. The mantra of "What They Said" captures in a phrase the band's lyrical anxiety: "If I knew what they said, I wouldn't have so many questions; [but] it's different with them, they keeps it to themselves." The songwriter says merely, "slang feels right. I like dialect writing; it's the way everyone talks. It always fits better."
But there's something sneaky in the way that roller-coaster self-esteem voices itself in vulnerable aggression: To quote Lucas' "Fake Tits," "I say it as a joke, but it's the same as if I said it any other way." So Mehlan's thin-skinned, but he's also cooler-than-thou: His bread and butter is post-trendy venues like Silent Barn, Ridgewood's (that's like super-Bushwick) dilapidated, impossible-to-find rebuttal to Live Nation. The venue also doubles as the Skeletons' former residence, and they're responsible for its arts-and-crafts dÃ¨cor.
To sum up, this is an undeniably fashionable band, capable of helplessly popular tunes, but marked by a particular brand of excellence beyond the pale of true acceptance. "Sicknesses," the most conflicted song on their heartbreaking new record, quietly confirms this formula. Mehlan sings: "I had this restaurant. I'd cook up all this good food. And people'd come in and they'd say, 'I'd like something plain, something like a hamburger.' That's life; that's life, I guess."
Skeletons & The Kings of all Cities are on tour throughout the month of May.