Let’s be honest here – it’s probably been a while since you’ve heard someone say the phrase “check out this great hip modern blues band”. Blues music is something that’s more and more been relegated to bars you don’t go to and that one hall of fame that deals with rock and roll, or whatever. The most popular modern blues acts are successful because they either take away or add elements to a tried and true formula; the White Stripes did it by taking out everything but some drums and a blown-out guitar amp, and the Black Keys did it by adding… well, Danger Mouse. Up until this point in their career, General B and the Wiz have been one of these few-and-far-between hip modern blues bands. However, I’m not so sure of that anymore. Don’t get me wrong, they’re hip as hell and absolutely stellar, but I struggle to call much of this album blues at all, or even the ‘indie-blues’ they describe themselves as. Surprise – I think that’s a good thing.
That’s not to say the group have abandoned their blues roots entirely. Opener “The Line” is as straight-up as it can get, but knowingly, they cut this jam off after less than two minutes, leading into the fantastic “Hold Up”. That track is an early highlight on Skeleton – it’s easygoing indie rock verse/chorus gives way to a jaw-dropping bridge, featuring easily the most incendiary guitarwork the band have been able to showcase on a studio recording yet. Things begin to get a little weirder on “This Town”, which weaves beautifully 80s acoustic and electric guitar arpeggios with what sounds like an upright bass to mesmerizing nearly-muzak effect before busting into a more traditional rock format. It’s almost a shame when this change happens – yes, a whole track of this chilled-out sound may have been a little much, but it shows that General B and the Wiz surprise and delight when they step out of their comfort zone.
Luckily, the album seems to have these types of moments in spades. Some of the band’s strongest work up until this point has had a certain off-the-cuff genre playfulness to it – their 2012 album Right in the Head‘s opener “Is it Enough” incorporated some progressive art rock-isms, and ‘All I Want’ featured some Wilco-circa-YHF music box sounds that have been reprised in spirit in the bridge of the aforementioned “Hold Up”. Detailing each of the little sonic experiments on Skeleton would take the rest of this review though, so I’ll spare us both the time.
This album also finds lead vocalist Quincy Voris using his unique timbre in the most effective way possible. When the rhythm section falls out, he spits out words as percussively as possible, and he stretches and molds sentences to add color and personality (case in point – “come on baby, I’m forLOOOORNNN” off “House”). Likewise, the rest of the band seem to have expanded their already extensive musical palette. The rolling funk of “Candi” and “These Days” contrast the Beatles-isms of “(In)finite” or the manic robot-rock of “Everything’s Fine” in a great way.
However, there are a couple missteps. The four-on-the-floor groove of “House” is something they’ve done more than once before, but the vocals and tongue-and-cheek lyrics help make up for it – a certain line about a tire swing comes to mind. Unfortunately, the Prince-indebted pomp of “Candi” doesn’t fare quite as well. Voris’ falsetto is strong enough, but the band doesn’t lend their sound quite as well to this style compared to some of the other tracks on the album. Regardless, with the amount of stylistic variety present here, it’s amazing these are the biggest complaints I could find. The few issues present here are all more than redeemed,
The album is their best yet, but the title is a bit of a misnomer. The songs on Skeleton are full-bodied, fleshed out pieces of music; the arrangements get dense and busy, and even the more brittle and incendiary guitarwork is often backed with powerful walls of choral wails, soothing layers of organ and synth, and sounds taken from many discrete parts of the musical spectrum. These elements come together to form a body greater than the sum of it’s parts. It may be a bit of a genre-hopping Frankenstein monster, but it’s a disarmingly well-put-together one, and there is flesh on these bones.