Skip Heller Trio: Mean Things Happening in This Land

Almost every piece in guitarist Skip Heller’s press kit mentions his unorthodox song choices (“from the Jackson 5 to Dean Martin,” basically). So it goes with Mean Things Happening in This Land, which includes three tunes by post-punk bands. XTC’s “Dear God” has an infectious staccato melody played over an electric piano that leans on the off beats. X’s “Motel Room in My Bed,” originally a chugging rocker, becomes a contemplative ballad. And the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl” would win approval from most B3 aficionados thanks to Chris Spies’ key work.

If the song titles mean nothing to you, that’s not a problem. Heller’s point is not the novelty of the material but how the trio works with it. His originals make up the bulk of the album anyway.

Drummer David White frequently forsakes a straight trap kit for bongos and cowbell, or sticks exclusively to a rumbling beat of the toms if he’s not playing a cumbia groove. True, Heller’s dry wit is on display throughout. Along with references to Sonny Rollins and Black Sabbath in “Punk Rock Girl,” he begins his “Hideout in the Sun” like “Telstar” before going off into an original surf melody. But his tone-clean, with the right amount of reverb-also presents plenty of reasons to take him seriously.