A year and a half after releasing the acclaimed Alopecia, WHY? returns with their fourth album, Eskimo Snow. The two records are perfect foils: while last year's release delivered intricate rhymes, live loops, slurred hooks, and acerbic wit, Eskimo Snow offers a sung, sobering take on mortality that unfurls in lush waves of Americana and pop-infused psych-folk. Pre-mixed in Nashville by Lambchop's Mark Nevers (Silver Jews, Bonnie Prince Billy, Calexico) and worked over by Alopecia engineer Eli Crews, this album is Why?'s most live-sounding yet--a shadowy and sprawling piece as intimate in subject matter as it is handsome in timbre.Yoni Wolf and the gang actually recorded Eskimo Snow at the same time as Alopecia, at Minneapolis' Third Ear studio, with Fog's Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson rounding out a live quintet. The vision for two separate albums emerged on a snowed-in night after a hot toddy or two. If Alopecia, however inexplicably, maintains a summery tone, then Eskimo Snow captures the bite and resignation of the Midwestern winters with which these Cincinnati boys grew up.These Hands opens the album up rich and with deliberate pacing, the rhythm section operating under heavy reverb. Vibraphone likewise duets with piano while windy, wordless vocals fly around the atmosphere, and wet footsteps soon carry the listener to January Twenty Something. Amid this folksy grandness, the whole crew sings for the chorus, bending their harmony into a gorgeously warped drawl.Most impressively, this record presents a band uninhibited, but evermore accomplished at imbuing sound with mood. Berkeley by Hearseback comes in so soft, the guitar tones feel like waves of grain next to the splashy cymbals and that Jim James-worthy cowboy croon ricocheting through the background. When the titular song brings the album to a hushed close, Eskimo Snow's place in the narrative becomes clear. Rather than spit at death or threaten it with suicide, Wolf stops bucking against the inevitable. In the process, the band discovers a rich place within which their listeners can happily live.
Review by Marisa Brown
Anticon trio Why? recorded Eskimo Snow, their fourth full-length, during the same sessions as Alopecia, which was released in March 2008, almost exactly 18 months to the day before Eskimo Snow came out. The album, which was being marketed as the "winter" side of the two, also features Mark Erickson and Fog's Andrew Broder, and is, altogether, a wholly more "organic" record, full of layered keyboards and guitars and gentle swells, and above all, a strong sense of melody, of those bits of pieces of songs that separate themselves from the chaff and hook themselves like burrs to your sweaters and uncovered socks. However, a winter album it is not. Eskimo Snow is a dynamic, nearly poppy record that finds lead singer Yoni Wolf slightly less verbose and esoteric than in the past. Which doesn't, of course, mean that every line, or even every song, on the album makes sense, and often the lyrics -- like many -- don't hold up upon close observation, but there are enough moments that stick out that Eskimo Snow feels more complete, more focused, than anything else Why? has created. "Against Me," one of the album's best songs, asks the unknown: "Will I gain weight in later life?/And when will someone swing a scythe against me?" as guitars and malleted chords pound in growing intensity, tapering off right before Wolf asks "Out of every woman on earth, who will I mate with?...Will all my unused seed collect like mercury?" The equally excellent "Even the Good Wood Gone," which, if not for it's rather macabre subject matter, might be mistaken for twee with all the plucked strings and major chord arpeggios it employs, plays with the metaphor of a "pharaoh...in/a shoddy school museum collection.../left not even with my death mask on" who can only mouth the words "No flash photography" again and again, which the frontman sings a bit disappointedly as the band goes into a nearly alt-country breakdown before building up again. The whole thing works extremely well, the combination of irony and drawn-out, peculiar melody exactly what fans of the band have come to expect. These same fans, however, might be surprised about how far Why? have moved from any of the experimental hip-hop that informed any of their (or Wolf's) earlier work, and even was present to some extent on Alopecia. Eskimo Snow is an album concerned with pop (albeit of a left-field variety), and so its setbacks are those of a pop album: the tendency to over-produce, the occasional forced rhyme, its overall...softness. Still, in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Eskimo Snow is a success, a resilient album that combines melody, abstract references, and intelligent introspection in equal parts into something that grows more and more compelling the more times it's heard.
During an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year, WHY?'s Yoni Wolf called Eskimo Snow, "really the least hip-hop out of anything I've ever been involved with." This might just be a less verbally economical way of saying, "we did this with the guy who produced the last Clientele record." Wolf's got a dry sense of humor like that. It's telling that he put it in those terms-- though 2008's staggering Alopecia won plenty of well-deserved plaudits, the most often-heard criticism I heard was a bizarrely general one, essentially that listeners were expecting a hip-hop record and got subjected to 50 minutes of indie rock. The Anticon name must still be heavy in the streets, but the truth is, as long as Wolf continues to be as candid and vivid as he's been in the past, he'll have more in common with the expressionists of outre rap than the straight-laced indie vanguard.
To a large degree, Eskimo Snow comes off like an acknowledgment of that gap rather than a collection of songs culled from the same sessions that birthed Alopecia. For better or worse, Eskimo Snow eschews the musical and emotional contours of Alopecia for a resigned saunter to the gallows. The shift is made apparent from the album's killer first line: "I wear the customary clothes of my time/ Like Jesus did with no reason not to die." But as "These Hands" progresses, it never builds into a larger statement, just an insular word collage.
But thereafter, the latest from WHY? is almost completely devoid of the black humor that typically undercuts Wolf's most uncomfortable confessions, save for centerpiece "Into the Shadows of My Embrace", which serves as the album's reservoir of nebbish quotables. The drum roll that follows "it'd take a busload of high school soccer girls to wash those hospitals off me" could just as easily be replaced by a rimshot. By the song's midsection, Wolf can barely contain himself, hyperventilating, "I wish I could feel close to somebody, but I don't feel nothing/ Now they say that I need to quit doing all this random f-f-ff...," biting his lip at that last word, embarrassed as much by his situation as the ease of the rhyme itself.
That's pretty much the last bit of levity before the second half's unyielding bleakness. Balancing it out-- and Wolf's curdled, nasal honk-- is one of the unexpectedly pretty albums you'll come across. Much of Eskimo Snow continues in the manner of "A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under" (which gets reprised on the stormy piano ballad "One Rose"), favoring loops of mallet percussion, live drumming, and acoustic guitar. "January Twenty Something" introduces honest-to-god vocal harmonies that blossom and split apart with surprisingly delicacy. But as the album progresses, only the brief, coiled intensity of flanger-lashed "On Rose Walk, Insomniac" proves to be a counterpoint to all those literal bells and whistles. Considering WHY?'s shift towards indie, the mixed meters of "Berkeley By Hearseback" seem influenced by Chicago post-rock. Meanwhile, many have remarked on the similarity of "This Blackest Purse" to the more maudlin side of Ben Folds, while the title track is in the style of the exhausted, finger-plucked acoustic send-off that served as the closer on the last couple of Death Cab albums.
It is easy to focus on what's missing here-- nothing strikes with the surprising pop instincts of "Fatalist Palmistry" or the unsettling hilarity of Wolf's far-fetched and yet somehow affecting closet-cleaning about buttfucking Berliners, throwing up behind Whole Foods, or "jerking off in an art museum john til my dick hurts" (this line went over surprisingly well at a performance in L.A.'s Natural History Museum). But as the cryptic refrain of "no flash photography" gives a new dimension to the weary C&W crawl of "Even the Good Wood Gone", it's clear that there's a hangover to be nursed, a need to "feel nothing" after Alopecia had Wolf "doomed to feel too much," as Pitchfork's Jason Crock said. Eskimo Snow just feels like the right kind of album for an incredibly gifted and increasingly prolific band like WHY? to release as a quick palate cleanser, reaching an endpoint of a certain sound rather than trying to top its predecessor's unmatchable extremities.
— Ian Cohen, September 25, 2009