Skeletons: Money

Bill Stewart

Skeletons deliver an avant-garde explosion that strains the contours of the album to their absolute breaking point. There's naturally a bit of damage within, but not so much that you can't still find some real treasure amidst the debris.



Label: Tomlab
US Release Date: 2008-11-04
UK Release Date: 2008-11-17

There's a very fine line between avant-garde brilliance and incoherence, and Money finds Skeletons walking that line precariously. Occasionally the New York experimentalists trip up and fall into almost "Revolution 9" levels of bewildering self-indulgence; other times they strike upon moments of soulful near-transcendence. For most of this album's over 50-minute running time, they remain part stunning and part inscrutable, a band with technical prowess and intelligence which don't always seem sure about what to do with their undeniable talent.

Of course, none of this is to say that Money, Skeletons' sixth LP overall and first for the German Tomlab label, is a dull listen. Given how staunchly experimental the band is, there's absolutely no shortage of novel musical ideas floating around here, and even the album's biggest missteps are at least fascinating missteps.

Take the monstrous, 11-plus-minute album centerpiece, "Booom! (Money!)", which begins with a frenetic, sloppy guitar jam behind a veil of fuzzed out, lo-fi distance -- before, somewhere around the 1:50 mark, the fuzz cuts out, each of the instruments are brought into crystalline focus, and one comes to the slow realization that the whole thing is actually pretty dull. The listener is left to sift through nine or so minutes of free jazz fret-noodling for the song's remainder. Sure, the noodling is driven by a killer "The National Anthem"-esque bassline, and it's technically sophisticated and nuanced -- but it's also the opposite of lyrical, and even if you tell yourself it's intentionally the opposite of lyrical, it's hard to maintain interest only a few brief minutes after the band's tantalized you with the excellent, concise Steely Dan pop of "STEPPER a.k.a. Work".

While a heady free jazz vapor does hang over much of Money, the band is equally as interested in the soft textures of vintage R&B -- and this proves to be an undeniably good thing. Frontman Matt Mehlan's soulful croon might not be as expressive or smooth as, say, Sly Stone, but what it lacks in dynamics it makes up for in sheer, recognizable warmth. Without Mehlan's voice serving as the human element at the center of songs such as "RIPPER a.k.a. The Pillows" -- which takes a few cues from the oppressive, art-damaged haze of early Velvet Undergound -- things wouldn't hold together nearly as well as they do.

There's at least one moment on the album where the band find a perfect compromise between avant-garde sensibilities and R&B affection: the disarmingly beautiful, late album standout "The Masks". The expansive soul ballad teems with shimmering guitar arpeggios, haunting backing vocals floating in a sea of reverb, and unselfish instrumental breaks that amplify the impact of the song rather than diminish it. Plus, it's a perfectly coherent and cerebral piece of songwriting that wears its battered heart on its sleeve -- which is more than can be said for Money's less successful experiments.

What's most frustrating, though, is that most of these experiments feel strikingly close to successful. Even the cacophonous discord of tracks like "Unrelentinglessness" is dense and intentional. But one also gets the feeling that with every new excursion into a free-form noise break or musique concrète experiment, Skeletons have stopped making art that conforms to any recognizable logic except the sort of clandestine, internal logic that fuels the intense, solitary conversations that crazies carry out with themselves on street corners.

But then, just as a track gets pushed to its absolute breaking point by some tangent or another, that warm and infectious chorus comes back in and you realize that, hey, Skeletons must know what they're doing after all. Most of the time. The other 30% of the time, it's hard to shake the sense that they're as lost as you are.


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