As expected, the band--Yoni Wolf, Josiah Wolf, Doug McDiarmid--continues its calculated blitzkrieg on that self-made jangle-rap, indie pop 'n' roll genre, but the stakes are raised. The boys returned to their Midwest roots for Alopecia, hunkering down in Minneapolis's Third Ear studio and inducting a pair of venerable big guns into the band: Fog mastermind Andrew Broder and bassist Mark "Bear" Erickson. Throwing their samplers to the wind (mostly), Why? recorded live as a five-piece. By the time the core trio returned to Oakland (where Thee More Shallows' D. Kessler engineered a final session), they'd amassed their most immediate and cohesive batch of songs to date.
Review by Marisa Brown
Although Why? have often been considered an alternative rap group, and frontman Yoni Wolf a rapper, this is a designation based on their affiliation with avant hip-hop label anticon and the fact that Wolf will alternate his nasally, sung vocals with spoken word pieces, a designation based on the fact that the band is simply rather hard to categorize. Why? are not hip-hop, but they are also much more than indie rock or folk or whatever other genres are thrown at them, staying within those distinctions but also moving forward, looking outward, all while remaining esoterically accessible. This is especially apparent on Alopecia, the band's third full-length, which, while musically resting comfortably in the experimentally-tinged indie rock realm, explores as many other influences as it can touch without ever overextending its reach. It's all wonderfully, awkwardly tied together by Wolf's lyrics -- detailed and odd and sometimes all too humanly crude -- which find a way to be both extremely intimate and detached, simultaneously. "These Few Presidents" alludes to death, though it's probably about a break-up ("At your house the smell of our still living human bodies and oven gas"), "Simeon's Dilemma" is a warped take on a love song ("But I still hear your name in wedding bells/Will I look better or will I look the same rotting in Hell?), and "Good Friday" manages to discuss sex, the Silver Jews, loneliness, and R. Crumb, while beginning with the lines "If you grew up with white boys who only look at black and Puerto Rican porno/Because they want something their dad don't got, then you know where you're at." Wolf often approaches his words from a hip-hop standpoint, concentrating on internal rhyme and enjambment, but his intonation and delivery are pure indie rock. As is the band, who layer keyboards, guitars, and electric and organic percussion into something simultaneously melodic and distant, tuneful and difficult, songs that you want to sing along to but then have trouble enunciating the hook to "The Hollows," the first single ("This goes out to all my underdone, other-tongued lung-long frontmen/And all us Earth-growths; some planted, some pulled"). But that, in fact, is what makes Alopecia successful: it displays both crypticness and honesty, intellectualism and vulgarity in equal measure, challenging and placating its audience in the same drawn-out, undefined, nasally breath.
Eyebrows raised when Why? were chosen to support the Silver Jews on a 2005 tour, but that seemingly incongruous bill made more sense when considering one of Berman's better lines: "All my favorite singers couldn't sing." Likewise on Alopecia, Yoni Wolf doesn't seem to know he isn't a diva on "Simeon's Dilemma", that he isn't a New Pornographer on "Fatalist Palmistry", or that he's not a grizzled battle-rapper on "The Fall of Mr. Fifths", and he won't let any of it get in his way. He's got too much to say to be concerned about it.
"Unclassifiable" is usually lazy shorthand for albums featuring both guitars and keyboards. Alopecia is a liquid in the sieve of genre: put it on headphones and it begs to bump; recite lyrics aloud and people will look at you with loathing usually reserved for religious leaflet canvassers and slam poets; try and decode the words in your head and you'll only hear the melodies behind them. As for his lyrics, it's wrong to call them stream-of-consciousness, since that implies Wolf is a poor self-editor; nothing about Alopecia is lazy. It's more like 5 a.m. journal entries cut up and turned to collage. Clearly, every line won't be pure gold, but they all add up to something.
Alopecia opens with the chain-gang lurch of "The Vowels Pt. 2", its slow claps and big, watery bass hits rubbing against Wolf's most insistent rap/sing delivery, and the unlikely hook of "Cheery-ay, Cheery-ee..." somehow becoming the record's most ingratiating. Funnily, the first two lines ("I'm not a ladies man, I'm a landmine, filming my own fake death...") reveal most of the record's preoccupation. No matter what he's on about on Alopecia-- although most of the time, he's pretty easy to follow, especially compared to his Anticon brethren-- sex and death are never far from Wolf's mind. The former is pretty evident on "Good Friday", a crisper revisiting of the acoustic plucking-plus-beats of Why?'s earlier work, and an uncomfortable litany of perversions Wolf "wouldn't admit to his head-shrinker" that includes forgetting Elton John lyrics in karaoke. Wolf's voice is (putting it delicately) distinctive, but his monotone murmur here is just one example of his ability to change up his delivery.
Not that he needs to-- while Wolf fearlessly splays open his head for all to see its contents, the band is the real star (the core of Yoni, brother Josiah Wolf, Doug McDiarmid, and here fleshed out by Fog's Andrew Broder and bassist Mark Erickson). They're what make "The Hollows" work as both tentative and propulsive guitar-rock under Wolf's paranoia, and make "Palmistry" cheerful and memorable pop under the sobriety of his lyrics. "These Few Presidents" is stiff indie rock, with drum-machines and the polite blurt of an organ, until the bottom drops out and cascades of clattering percussion and yawning low frequencies soundtrack the most sincere Hallmark card ever: "Even though I haven't seen you in years, yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere."
"Mr. Fifths" returns to bouncy, rap-minded delivery, with tongue-twisting lines about syphilis and the sound of high heels on marble. But they've got some nerve here, making us wait until the record's last third for its best songs: "A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under" is some strange, sublime triangulation of Steve Reich, deadpan rap swagger, and blustery multi-tracked choruses you could link to Alice in Chains. But trainspotting is beside the point-- the band creates a musical landscape so vivid that every cryptic line doesn't seem inscrutable, but more like puzzles worth unlocking.
The stalker's serenade, "Simeon's Dilemma", is creepy, sure, but then Wolf busts out the falsetto like he's a supporting character in a boy band getting his big solo moment-- you can almost hear him pointing at notes on the invisible scale with his hand. Then there's the disorienting and dreamy behind-the-beat thump of "By Torpedo or Crohn's", featuring what I guess you might expect from underground white-guy rap: cryptic lyrics about throwing up behind Whole Foods, the admission that as a kid he "didn't shit his pants much," and hoping for health food in hell. It contrasts with the rest of Alopecia, but even as a portrait of a medium existence, it's still a complicated one, and its most lasting impression after the lulling sing-song of the chorus is pervasive anxiety. It's weird to think that 2008 could be a year of reaffirmation for Anticon, but along with Subtle, they just won't adhere to the boxes we've tried to stuff them into.
If there's anything that drags down Alopecia, it's that "Fatalist Palmistry" is the only real sigh of relief on a very sober record (and even that song begins and ends on thoughts of death). Even as it charted a difficult breakup, 2005's Elephant Eyelash had a few more moments of relative sunshine. Here, Wolf's exhaustively catalogued his sins and imperfections as on "Good Friday", and even the stalker in "Simeon's Dilemma" has no release or acknowledgment to look forward to; he braces for the fall, and prepares to "deny, deny, deny." Wolf seems doomed to feel too much here-- to take in everything, and take it all very, very seriously.
-Jason Crock, March 11, 2008