The obvious advantage to the one-man (or woman) show is the freedom to let your creative vision shine through without having to appease the tastes of other individuals. Issues with finances and people skills aside, why else would someone want to strike out on their own? But going it alone also has its drawbacks- with no one to consult or exchange ideas with, the solo act is left to his/her own devises, which can often result in either wonderfully untainted inspiration or pure sonic masturbation. In the case of the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory-bred Skeletons (a.k.a. Matt Mehlan), being a solo performer appears to be working against the music.
I read a review in another E-zine in which the writer compared Mehlan’s vocal style to that of the Sea and Cake’s Sam Prekop. While such a comparison isn’t necessarily unwarranted (both employ lethargic, relaxed approaches to their vocals) the underlying difference between Prekop and Matt Mehlan is that Mehlan, simply put, couldn’t carry a tune in a paper bag. Life And The Afterbirth is packed with some pretty decent melodies, but Mehlan’s voice isn’t strong enough to carry them. Moreover, his overall delivery is largely irritating throughout, coming across like someone desperately trying to hit a note just a smidgen or two above his/her range but falling short every time. Note to Señor Skeletor: you have some potential- get a real singer.
Mehlan also seems to enjoy employing electronics a great deal of the time. Instead of using these devices to add color or flavor to his tunes, he uses them as gimmicks and, more often, crutches- utilizing electronics to disguise the fact that there is little--if any--actual content present in the songs. I have no qualms with abstract or convoluted lyrics, but in the case of Life And The Afterbirth, much of the lyrics seem simply weird for the sake of being weird and self-consciously so. Consider these lines: “I sometimes pretend I’m Jesus when I’m water-skiing”, “this is the part of the story where your first pet dies”, “I like to do manual labor in the mouths of volcanoes”, etc.
Life And The Afterbirth isn’t all bad, though: track 3 (none of the songs have actual titles) features a few fairly interesting transitions from a slippery theremin solo, a pseudo-doo wop section, and some rather pleasant Rhodes piano, all anchored by Mehlan’s sharp (as in off-key) vocals. The highlight for me had to be track 4- the only tune with some iota of direction. Track 4 rides a vibraphone and a convoluted melody all the way to one hell of a catchy chorus (“If you give me the chance I’d like to fuck away your memory/fuck away mistakes I’ve made”) that’ll sure to stick in your head for that weekend trip up to the Hamptons.
In short, Life And The Afterbirth didn’t do much for me. A bunch of half-formed ideas thrown together haphazardly does not make for a solid record, but that may exactly be what has drawn listeners to Skeletons in the first place. I believe the key to Skeletons’ prosperity will be the successful merger of technology and songcraft. The future is looking bright, though: it is Mehlan’s first label release and he’s already got half of the equation down. With unnerving singing, a fuck-ton of filler (tracks 6 and 8 are nothing more than useless electronic bleeps and gurgles), and egregious use of state-of-the-art technology, Skeletons have a long way to go before they start growing some muscles.