There’s electronic buzzing, post-something refrains, borderline-tribal heat, and occasional Rhodes-and-bass grooves. There’s also, however, more mutant pop bridges than you could swing a dead cat at, if that’s your idea of a good time. The Mehlans – Matt Mehlan’s first record under his birth name, though not the first record he’s recorded solo – is, indeed, a bizarre yet inviting intersection of art-rock construction and pop-rock directness, a kind of blend of Bill Withers or Paul McCartney and Wings by way of Cheer-Accident.
The record — out today, and name your price on Bandcamp through at least the end of the month, on artistic collective Shinkoyo — has tons of stand-outs: from textured Gastr del Sol-inspired avant-acoustics (the far-too-short closer “Humble Being,” “Déjà vu,”) and funky work-outs (“Are You That Somebody?,” “White Rabbit” – not the one you think, though) to Skeletons meta-outtakes (“Brooklyn Girls”) to take-it-as-it-lies sound- and sample-nuggets (“Happy Birthday,” “Taxi Driver,” the overlapping dialogues of “At the Park”). The thing is nothing if not diverse and multi-colored.
What’s surprising, though, is how well the LP’s 11 tracks hang together. The record avoids the kind of thematic arcs that have informed Skeletons releases (Money, for the record, has aged rather well) but still feels at one with itself. Astute listeners can contribute this to a lot of things but I think it has a lot to do with Mehlan’s modus-operandi; he recorded this at home and alone, without the extended explorations that led to some of Skeletons’ notable but prog-ier moments. And, while you occasionally want The Mehlans to expand its borders, to explore a groove or a passage further, the delivery method works. (And, let me stress, it’s not that Mehlan leaves ideas before they mature. The closing half of “Déjà vu” has an epic feel to it, largely due to the gradual vocal-horizon-expansion of a single bridge.)
Fans of Skeletons’ more experimental fare might balk at the bounce-pop of “Are You That Somebody?” but doing that foregoes the details – the way loping electronics swirl around a synth line, or the extended invocation of a reverse-looped vocal sample. Mehlan isn’t abandoning his more daring work – he’s just found a great way to make it accessible to people who cannot listen to 10-minute-long songs.
Near the end of the record comes “Insomnia,” which borrows a familiar Skeletons motif – the jangly open-note strumming of a guitar, a meter-march that sometimes borders on the arrhythmic. The song’s first moments, before the acoustic guitar gets accompanied by a bubbly bass and the pitter-patter of jazz-cymbal, are almost defiantly spare. But, Mehlan has the good sense to build from the ground up and, by the time you near the end of the 8:13 running-time, you’ve been treated to all sorts of synth proclamations and vocal multi-tracking, all at the service of that jangly acoustic guitar, which dominates throughout. It’s an unconventional moment for a record full of largely one-, two- and three-minute songs but that seems to be the point. Mehlan’s looking for a way to hook unsuspecting ears with avant tendencies writ within the frame of the verse/chorus/verse. On The Mehlans, he finds what he’s seeking. You should, too.