The weird world of Why?—more specifically, the world evoked in the peculiar lyrics of frontman Yoni Wolf—continues to get stranger.
On the Oakland-by-way-of-Cincinnati band's unusual, engrossing Eskimo Snow (Anticon), scary figures, comical failures and sad premonitions inhabit a world both self-enclosed and all-encompassing with religion (Jesus, Maccabees, Book of Numbers, God), geography (Ohio, Cleveland, Jersey City, Berkeley), food (sea salt, watermelon, meat), animals (a dead fox, one mongoose, one cobra), characters (high school soccer girls, ex-girlfriends, the poseur in the bowler, grave robbers, midwives, the small fry in the bowtie, dead soldiers), miscellany (ticker tape, a death mask, pissing-boy fountain statues, fever dreams, a health-club locker) and the personal (mom and "I").
Started as a pet project by Yoni Wolf, whose deadpan raps and quirky musical tastes (culled from hip-hop, rock and folk influences) made for strange bedfellows, Why? soon swelled into a full-fledged band with Yoni's brother, Josiah, and friend Doug McDiarmid joining. In 2005, the group released Elephant Eyelash, a dense, playful album of quick-witted raps, tender, cutting musical passages, and Yoni's nasal vocals, to critical acclaim.
When Why? returned to the studio (Third Ear in Minneapolis) in 2007, the band enlisted Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson (of the band Fog) and began recording what would become two albums of material. The first, Alopecia, was released in 2007 to resounding accolades: An album of endless oddity and poetry—the musical equivalent of being dragged down a rabbit hole—it stands as the group's masterpiece. Yet, Eskimo Snow, which comes from the same sessions, is an equally impressive statement with (more) traditional song structures, minimal hip-hop (the raucous, ringing "Against Me" being a notable exception) and endless pathos.
The slight, whirling and pinging opening ballad, "These Hands," establishes the album's themes of death ("I wear the customary clothes of my time / like Jesus did, with no reason not to die"), impermanence ("Like I'm some forgotten Southern city Sherman razed"), and inadequacy ("These hands are my father's hands but smaller"). Yoni Wolf's sharp, curious lyrics are often filled with cringe-inducing sad-sack trials and tribulations—as well as countless death fantasies. Speaking by phone, Wolf spoke about his tendency to use first-person in his songs, which he admits are "more or less all loosely autobiographical, even if embellished or changed."
"It all melds generally; there's no hard-and-fast rule about keeping myself in or out of a song," Wolf said. "Of course, not everything I say in first-person is true or necessarily about myself. I mean, I'm not literally feeding people to Jeffrey Dahmer."
Although they were recorded during the same session, Alopecia and Eskimo Snow are unique releases. Wolf uses sibling imagery to suggest the albums are "not twins, but sisters." According to the metaphor, Eskimo Snow is both an immaculately primped princess (Wolf admits to taking an inordinate amount of time with the mastering and post-production of it) and independent tomboy (its mostly live recording style gives it a loose, knee-scraped charm).
"After touring Alopecia ... I took a different take on the album and added some post-production, some flavor—compression, EQ, reverb and delay," Wolf said. "We recorded live for the most part. Retained the integrity of the sessions. It's a new way of working for us; Alopecia had more overdubs and tweaking."
One assumption when two albums come from the same session, two years apart, is that the second release (Eskimo Snow) comprises the refuse from the first (Alopecia). Yet this set of 10 tracks is no mere B-sides—as the complicatedly aching, gorgeous and rocking piano ballad "This Blackest Purse" will attest. From the start of the recording, Why? consciously separated the tracks into two camps.
"We went into the studio knowing what we wanted to record," Wolf said. "When you're paying a shit-ton of money you have to have a plan. We teased out songs that fit together, so what's on Eskimo Snow are the songs that fit naturally into that camp, and the more hip-hop material we put into the Alopecia camp."
The dedication to Eskimo Snow can be heard in the songs that populate the album; Why?, in the past, generally favored deconstructive approaches to hip-hop, folk and rock structures. From the heart-rending naked balladry of closer "Eskimo Snow," to the evocative baroque gestures (plucked arpeggios on what sounds like a lute) and country-western twang (lush slide-guitar strokes) of "Even the Good Wood Gone," to the nightmarish, hollow tones of "One Rose," these songs are muscular, visceral and intellectual.
Lyrically, Wolf continues to mine the first-person (and quasi-personal) for fodder that is uncomfortable, honest and humorous. As he's back in Cincinnati, living at home ("I kind of moved back here in a way. I've been staying with my parents for two months"), it's easy to wonder what his family thinks of his occasionally deviant lyrical indulgences ("Jerking off in an art museum john until my dick hurts").
"My dad likes to give as much feedback as I'll let him. He's a big supporter of ours, definitely," Wolf said. "They tried to ask me about the part where I say something about kissing my shrink, and I just said, 'I definitely don't want to talk about that,' and they let it go. I just got used to it, I guess."
Wolf is referring to the album's centerpiece, the chugging rocker "Into the Shadows of My Embrace," which takes a string of uncomfortable confessions (like kissing one's shrink and being spied on while masturbating) only to turn the moment self-reflexive and cathartic with the song's climactic release: "And I know saying all this in public should make me feel funny / but you got to yell something that you'll never tell nobody."
When asked if he cares about how critics and fans alike fret about his graveyard mind ("The rat that's caught, in the ribs of me / will be released within the year"), Wolf notes, "It doesn't make a difference to me," before casually admitting, "There's some dark lyrics, sure."