Saturday, October 10, 2009

Revisited: Why?

Not enough time has elapsed to say that I truly "revisited" Alopecia, since I haven't really stopped listening to the album since first hearing it a little over a year ago. However, the good folks over at In Review Online decided to publish a Discographer feature on the Berkeley-by-way-of-Cincinnati band to coincide with the release of their latest, Eskimo Snow, and asked me to contribute my thoughts on my favorite Why? album. As Alopecia was one of my favorites from 2008, I was happy to oblige. Check out the rest of the feature Here.

Lifting lyrics from cLOUDDEAD’s “3 Twenty,” “The Vowels pt. 2” opens Alopecia with one last look to the past. The album marks the last Why? album containing any vestige of hip hop, and sees the band progressing further into pop territory, prescient of the complete submersion that would mark the subsequent Eskimo Snow. The album’s titular disease reflects the dark humor in Why?’s music; it’s nothing more than a fairly common problem of hair loss, but to lead singer/songwriter Yoni Wolf, the gradual depletion of his follicles is a looming reminder of his mortality.

With its carefully balanced amalgam of hip-hop, folk and pop music, Alopecia is the definitive statement of Yoni Wolf’s career thus far. Keyboards range from the guttural piano rumble opening the record to the staccato organ marking “These Few Presidents.” Josiah Wolf’s percussive prowess finally makes its way to the foreground, with rapid xylophone parts and the most intricate drumming yet to be heard on a Why? record. Rather than jarring juxtaposition, Why?’s blend of hip-hop influenced vocal and rhythms with an indie-rock band setup proves to be the most musically interesting incarnation of the group.

Of course, words are the most important part of any Why? record, and Alopecia finds Wolf’s lyricism at its most direct and exposed. His confessions are unflinchingly candid, sincere, and uncompromisingly honest. He never gives the impression that his uncomfortably intimate details are intended for shock value, but rather for a necessary catharsis. While his cadence often incorporates hip-hop delivery, it’s his clever wordplay that reflects his past in “art rap” and evinces his history with Anticon.

Further, Wolf’s fixation on mortality has never been displayed with this much eloquence, wit or confidence. Unease from a constant fear of death leads him to ruminate on religion for the majority of the album. He’s best when most subversive, and utilizes liturgical imagery and tradition to expose his doubt in the sovereignty and/or existence of a higher power (“Torpedo or Crone’s” and “The Fall of Mr. Fifths” betray a more-than-superficial familiarity with American Protestant tradition, surprising given the considerable references to a Jewish upbringing in his work). When he intones, “Devoid of all hope,” on the despairing “Good Friday,” you believe it.

Add to that the fact that “A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under” is referenced on this year’s Eskimo Snow, and this all might come to indicate that Wolf won’t ever fully close the doors on his past. If that’s the case, it’s unfortunate for his mental health, but great for listeners craving honest, innovative and consistently rewarding songwriting. It’s Wolf’s writing, after all, that makes Alopecia not only Why?’s best record, but one of 2008’s best and most intriguing listens.

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