Crank the Treble: Bibio

Bibio - Mind Bokeh

Some (mixed) thoughts on the latest record from Bibio, the varied and ultimately hit-or-miss Mind Bokeh, originally published here. I’ll be taking a little break from Treble, but keep showing Jeff and everyone over there love… they do good work and a lot of it.

U.K. artist Stephen Wilkinson, better known to the world as Bibio, has been consistently spinning out into new territory ever since he dropped his first forays into fractured laptop-folktronic exploration with fi. In 2009 he released two records, though the boom-bap laced bedroom pop jangle of Ambivalence Avenue most potently displayed Wilkinson’s strengths as a songwriter and producer. All who heard that record couldn’t help but be excited at where he was headed next, a feeling that was stoked and fanned by some new mouthwatering album snippets released by Warp Records a few months ago. Yet, as the dust settles on Mind Bokeh, it seems less have been swayed by Bibio’s most recent rebranding, which finds his songcraft reaching out beyond his comfort zone into more varied and pop-driven territory.

From the outset I’ll just come out and say that I think Mind Bokeh is a pretty good record, yet one that is not without its problems. Though some of us may have mistakenly been expecting an even more accomplished masterpiece, instead Bibio’s push to diversify his sound has the occasional feel of an artist perhaps pushing too far and floundering in unfamiliar sonic zones. When Wilkinson is on, he’s on — from the hazy, lo-fi funk of “Pretentious,” to the smooth chopped-up soul of “Anything New,” to the buoyant joy of “K is for Kelson,” to the Gold Panda-like haze of “Saint Christopher,” there are a number of solid tracks on Mind Bokeh. Yet other songs find Wilkinson unwilling to decide on an identity — “Artist’s Valley” starts off well enough, but then spills into a second half that fails to complement the rest of the composition — while others go on a little too long or are unconvincing from the get go. “Take Off Your Shirt” is the obvious stinker here; I don’t even dislike it all that intensely, but this is just something that Bibio should clearly stay away from. Please leave this kind of infectious, charming indie pop to Phoenix? K, thanks.

Ultimately, I can say Mind Bokeh is a record worth checking out — even it takes a few listens to start appreciating it. Though its pastiche of ideas and styles never comes together fully, the missteps here serve as a reminder that Bibio is an artist constantly moving in new directions. His willingness to take chances may yield mixed results now and then, but even amongst his weaker efforts there remains a thread of charm and emotional depth that provides enough reward to justify spending some time with them. One can’t always expect consistency. And where’s the adventure in that anyhow?

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Download: Bibio – K Is for Kelson
Buy: You can pick up Mind Bokeh over at BLEEP.

Songs of 2010: “Shutterbugg”

Big Boi - Shutterbugg

Big Boi – “Shutterbugg” (Feat. Cutty)
Chickens Don’t Clap!: #2, Treble: #1

Every time I listen to this song feels like the first time.  No joke; I’m convinced it’s impossible to not start bobbin’ your head as soon as that bubbling, talkboxed a cappella bass line drops. Smooth and raucous at once, the in-your-face wall-of-bass production from Scott Stortch and Big Boi is nothing short of monumental and has all the makings of another classic for the annals of hip-hop history. Three Stacks is rapping again now and then, but on “Shutterbugg” Big Boi reminds you with gusto that he never really stopped. His quick, forceful delivery is effortless, tying together playful humor and real talk with slick wordplay and typical charisma (“And across the border the Esé’s are getting smarter / They got flour for tortillas and lettuce for enchiladas / If you follow, wink wink / No doubt we don’t speak / In a blink, them folks could have you sleeping in the clink”). The music video will also forever be inextricably entwined with this jam, at least in my mind: Tron Suit dancers, a towering wall of Dixie cups, Big Boi scaling a mountain of shoes, The Most Valuable Puppet Band, a Dungeon Fam cameo, AND a Technicolor Cadillac? The list goes on and on and on — can’t forget to mention that epic Soul II Soul reference — but to make a loooong story short, “Shutterbugg” is simply another in a series of perfect singles from a member OutKast.

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Download: Big Boi – Shutterbugg
Buy: Pick up Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty over at Insound.

Songs of 2010: “Norway”

Beach House - Norway

Beach House – “Norway”
Chickens Don’t Clap!: #3, Treble: #16

I’ve always found myself in the camp that kind of thinks all of Beach House’s songs sound more or less the same, but enjoys a number of them nonetheless. On paper, “Norway” doesn’t stray too far from the formula — droning organs, subtle percussion, reverb-laden guitar work, and resonant vocals — yet simultaneously strikes with a refreshing unfamiliarity and staggering depth. Every element feels perfectly suited for the composition. Following the brief initial hum of organ, a burst of shimmering guitars and Victoria Legrand’s breathy wordless hooks serve as counterpoint to the relative gloom of the verse, where Alex Scally’s guitar work morphs into a suffocating bend and sway while Legrand’s mournful croon pulls the listener down… down… down. Something as simple as the interplay between verse and chorus becomes remarkably moving, ultimately building to the final, soaring refrain of “Norwaaay-ay-ay-ay-ay, ay-ay-ay-aaayyyy”. Right when you think a band had exhausted their sound, they go ahead and make their best work to date without any drastic changes. Touché, Beach House.

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Download: Beach House – Norway
Buy: Order Teen Dream from Sub Pop Records.

Songs of 2010: “Devil in a New Dress”

Kanye West -

Kanye West – “Devil in a New Dress” (Feat. Rick Ross)
Chickens Don’t Clap!: #9, Treble: #36

From 90s hip-hop inspired “boom bap record” to the massive conceptual opus it became, there’s little argument that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy gradually evolved into another leap forward in creativity for a hip-hop artist who has already traversed a greater musical landscape than most. Still, in the midst of gritty guitar work, abrasive production, copious guest appearances, and two minute auto-tune solos, Kanye did not forget where his strengths lie; on “Devil in a New Dress” he even found space to indulge his newfound prog tendencies while revisiting his roots. Opening with the kind of heart-tugging, chopped-up chipmunk-soul vocal sample and string work that has become forever intertwined with his legacy, Ye breaks down a collapsing relationship with characteristic emotional depth, introspection, sarcasm, and humor. This version of the song is pushed further than its original incarnation as a “G.O.O.D. Fridays” offering, expanded to include a bridge of climactic guitars and piano, as well as a swagger-laden closing verse from Rick Ross. A rousing centerpiece of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Devil in a New Dress” operates as a testament to both where Kanye began and currently resides artistically, fusing two perspectives with rewarding grace and subtlety.

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Download: Kanye West – Devil in a New Dress (Feat. Rick Ross)
Buy: Pick up My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from Insound or iTunes.

Songs of 2010: “CMYK”

James Blake - CMYK

James Blake – CMYK
Chickens Don’t Clap!: #12, Treble: #38

After drawing some critical attention for his excellent 2009 single “Air & Lack Thereof” / “Sparing the Horse”, James Blake laid his claim to the throne of dubstep’s more deliberate and reflective underbelly in 2010 with a couple more noteworthy singles and three stellar EPs. His growing discography is filled with an impressive amount of variation and standout tracks, but his strongest single offering from this year is the title track of the R&B-obsessed CMYK EP. Though quickly becoming known as a master of stark minimalism, Blake’s “CMYK” balances its initial sparseness with a massive, surging wall of buzzing bass, waves of static, vocal cut-ups, and layered, syncopated beats. Centered on a few sampled passages of Kelis’ 1999 single “Caught Out There”, this tune completely transforms these fragments into something well beyond the traditional role of lyrics and language in pop music, mutating and modulating them into mysterious, hazy, dark, and emotive elements of sound. Ultimately, “CMYK” feels like one of those watershed moments for dubstep and electronic music more broadly, as Blake stretches and embellishes the familiar into something refreshing and wholly original.

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Download: James Blake – CMYK
Buy: Get CMYK over at R&S Records or iTunes.

Songs of 2010: “Heaven’s on Fire”

The Radio Dept. - Heaven's on Fire

The Radio Dept. – “Heaven’s on Fire”
Chickens Don’t Clap!: #23, Treble: #18

I recently wrote a few blurbs for Treble‘s “Top 50 Songs of 2010” feature and wanted to post them, along with accompanying mp3s, for you all here. When I’m done I’ll be sure to post a complete list of my 50 favorite songs from this year.

Let’s not beat around the bush — the Swedes know to make pop music. From ABBA, to Ace of Bass, The Cardigans, Robyn, The Hives, The Concretes, The Knife, José González, The Tough Alliance, Peter Bjorn & John, and others, Swedish mainstream and indie pop is populated by an increasingly diverse blend of artists that have enjoyed their own degrees of international success. The Radio Dept. fit comfortably on the fuzzier side of Swedish pop, but have had a fairly reserved fifteen year career, putting out just their third full-length in 2010. However, with songs as catchy as “Heaven’s on Fire”, the distance between their release seems irrelevant. Opening with a sampled call-for-rebellion from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (“…I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture”), this second single from Clinging to a Scheme is all melancholy sweetness from there on out. Not forgetting the most important pop mantra — hooks, hooks, and more hooks — The Radio Dept. provide accordingly with catchy lo-fi synth, bubbly guitars, prominent bass riffs, somber piano, sax solos, and breezy Balearic drum loops. Endlessly listenable and downright addictive, this song is one of the strongest in the whole of the current, saturated Swedish pop scene. And that’s saying something.

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Download: The Radio Dept. – Heaven’s on Fire
Buy: Pick up Clinging to a Scheme over at Insound or eMusic.

Crank the Treble: Rafter

Rafter - Animal Feelings

Animal Feelings is currently the Album of the Week over at Treble. You can check out my full review down below, originally published right here.

Rafter Roberts can’t sit still. Over the course of a decade he‘s mixed, mastered, and produced for the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Castanets, The Fiery Furnaces, Rocket from the Crypt, Pinback, amongst many others. He makes up one half of the celebrated San Diego band Bunky and more recently has dropped four stellar solo albums and an EP. He’s also built his own recording studio and even finds time to write ad jingles. The shrinks out there might label it ADD, but that’s a far too negative and sterile explanation for the man’s prolific and consistently excellent creative output. From the more obtuse, lo-fi ramble of 10 Songs, Rafter’s solo work has been drifting ever closer to the radiant center of his own pop solar system, getting sweeter, more danceable, and more cohesive along the way. His career continues its crash course into pop-brilliance in 2010 with his most even-handed and song-centered full-length Animal Feelings, a satisfying swirl of sassy guitar cuts, catchy ramshackle percussion, smooth and soulful white-boy R&B posturing, vocoded funk-swagger, and distinctive playfulness and charisma.

This latest record opens with decisiveness, the talk box warble of “No Fucking Around” ringing out across minimal, synth-assisted percussive strikes. In contrast to its abrasive hooks, Rafter whispers a croon full of genuine praise, somehow fusing the funkiest of funks and his fragile pop-bent with convincing ease. Going beyond simple juxtaposition, these songs, like virtually all the works of Rafter Roberts, are crafted with skillful stream-of-consciousness and appear to be imbued with all the inspirations that happened to be floating around in his head at the time. In the context of his singular musical vision — at once delicate, bold, intimate, youthful, earnest, humorous, and off-kilter — he runs a thematic gamut that spans the reaches of life, from the serious to the trivial. Friendship, togetherness, love, lust, sex, and death are explored and interpreted, just as the title-track implies (“I’ve got animal feelings, animal thoughts”), through the lens of irrepressible carnal desire and emotion. Album standout “Fruit” embodies that spirit of primal need rather openly, finding Rafter indulging in more talk box-heavy guitar slink throughout this seize-the-day, why-postpone-the-inevitable love-jam. Roberts plays persistent protagonist, his instincts taking the lead in breaking down all barriers that obstruct love.

I don’t think we need to ask if his insistence won out; much of the rest of Animal Feelings celebrates his love for his new wife Lizeth Santos (photographer and sampler/drummer/singer as Smile Now Cry Later). Of course, Rafter also isn’t afraid to acknowledge love’s duality as he does on “Love Makes You Happy (When It’s Not Making You Sad)” and elsewhere on this record with grin-worthy whimsy and plain-spoken honesty. In fact, his charms seem to be exposed equally in pure expressions of happiness and love or when riffing on less joyous subjects. With “Paper”, originally written and recorded for his “Song a Week” project for the Asthmatic Kitty Records website, Rafter constructs an irresistible, rhythmic, tropical-tinged gem around his annoyance at losing ideas and thoughts in the recesses of his brain: “You motherfuckers, you motherfuckers where did you go!?”. Luckily a solution is quickly realized in the song’s namesake and catchy chorus, “I need paper, I need paper / I need paper, yes I do / To keep my thoughts from goin’ away / To keep my thoughts from goin’ away”. Yes, even when he’s bugged by something, Rafter Roberts prefers to express himself through lovable, dancey, hook-laden tunes.

It doesn’t seem like the guy really has a choice. He’s a whirlwind of ideas, energy, and enthusiasm that knows better than to do anything but keep riding that wave to its unending conclusions. And I mean that quite seriously; according to his blog he’s got his next “4 album projects mapped out”. So look for more of Rafter’s pop wizardry — and maybe some “meditation music” — very soon.

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Download: Rafter – Paper
Buy: You can order Animal Feelings directly from Asthmatic Kitty Records.

Crank the Treble: jj

jj - jj n°3

Here’s my latest review written for Treble, which covers the new record from Sincerely Yours / Secretly Canadian recording artist jj. Peep the original publication here, which includes a short list of albums you may also enjoy if you dig jj n° 3.

In retrospect, it’s hard to see the coy mysteriousness surrounding hazy pop duo jj as much more than a gimmick. Not to say that it wasn’t a captivating or extremely successful one, as most internet tastemakers became enamored with these elusive Swedes and helped propel them into the upper echelons of buzz in 2009. But with that kind of meteoric rise at a time when virtually anyone can help fuel a web 2.0 hype machine with any number of free resources, it seems pointless to suggest that such a widespread lack of knowledge was neither calculated nor irresistibly intriguing. Of course, gimmick alone means little if you aren’t producing good music. jj certainly hasn’t had a problem on that front; thus far the output from Joakin Benon and Elin Kastlander has been pretty exceptional, especially their 2009 effort jj n° 2. And now, just eight months since that album dropped, jj is back with another full-length, the aptly and functionally titled jj n° 3.

Still on the comedown from jj n° 2‘s drug-addled, sunny Balearic pop bliss, some have been quick to write off this latest, more subdued effort for lacking the same immediate allure and memorable songwriting as jj’s debut. The songs that populate these records were reportedly conceived and recorded at the same time, so despite its seemingly hasty release there’s no justification in saying that jj n° 3 was rushed, though it has been referred to as “jj n° 2 b-sides”. But as the double-edged sword of how (and how quickly) jj entered the collective consciousness of the indie world starts to cut the other way, I’ve found that repeated listens have helped to displace initial disappointment and reveal more strengths than shortcomings on this record.

Pushing from summer to its counterpoint with this “winter album,” Joakin and Elin still cannot escape the ever-present tropical vibe that permeates their songs. This time around it’s far subtler and dives even further into nostalgic melancholy, but jj n° 3 still transports the listener far from their own existence, fuzzy images of expansive nature and sensations of sunshine and cool breezes accenting conveyed feelings of both warm relationships and pristine solitude. Juxtaposition seems to come naturally for jj, as opener “My Life” demonstrates rather bluntly with its collision of sorrowful piano and stolen Lil’ Wayne and Daft Punk hooks. That sounds terrible written out, but somehow it all typically works, if at times inspiring a smirk or an eye roll. With the amount of charisma that Joakin and Elin exude all things become that much easier: their youthful naiveté and melodrama escapes easy criticism because it’s just too charming, their occasional dips into almost new agey soft-pop are interwoven and performed so seamlessly that it feels right.

Though jj n° 3 has been faulted on the memorability front, there are a handful of catchy, repeat-worthy gems here that strike at the infectiousness that is becoming characteristic of jj. Perhaps not as direct as their best songs, lead single “Let Go” is a restrained, plaintive and minimal anthem that highlights Elin’s soft and ethereal voice, embodying the more languid tone of this record. That tone is brightened considerably on the bubbly and playful standout “Voi Parlate, Lo Gioco,” its upbeat guitar strums and bouncy, synthesized xylophone and strings soar along with the vocal melodies as the purest and most immediate hooks on the record. After the brief detour of “Golden Virginia,” the sweet falling-for-you confessions of “You Know” carries jj n° 3 up to similar heights of unabashed pop.

So even if this record doesn’t improve upon the foundation laid by jj n° 2, it’s important to remember that it’s really a part of the same statement. A bit weaker, yes, but its aims are also different. Deliberately less immediate and outright hook-driven, it shouldn’t be surprising that our expectations weren’t met — they were just sidestepped.

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Download: jj – Let Go
Buy: Stream and download jj n° 3 from the Sincerely Yours digital store.

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Bonus Download: jj – 5 Minuter med jj

Crank the Treble: Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile - Childish Prodigy

Check out my latest Treble review for current Album of the Week Childish Prodigy by Kurt Vile. Originally published here, where it includes a short list of similar albums.

The late 2000s have spewed out a staggering number of fuzzed-out chillwavers, low fidelity rockers, and tape-hiss troubadours. Many have consistently put out some of the most enjoyable music of the past few years and many others are probably destined to end up remembered as flashes in the pan. But, even among the heaviest of the lo-fi heavyweights, few have approached what might be considered genuine greatness, in that their songwriting transcends their fascination with production aesthetics and the production aesthetic amounts to more than a well executed gimmick. There’s little question that Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile has become one of those truly noteworthy few, crafting memorable bedroom-pop anthems and utilizing lo-fi in a way that such a labeling feels incomplete and inadequate.

Vile’s rise into the indie limelight started back in 2008 with the release of Wagonwheel Blues from his stellar band The War on Drugs and his official solo debut Constant Hitmaker. Though the former has often been primarily credited to frontman Adam Granduciel, further Kurt Vile works have confirmed that he obviously played a large role in constructing The War on Drugs’ dense shoegazing blues-rock. One need not look beyond that record or his sporadic live sets with backup band The Violators to know that he can convincingly posture as some forgotten classic rock god, channeling the likes of Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Neil Young, and Lou Reed. And while some of that posturing has cropped up now and then on Vile’s solo material – take the soaring CCR-stomp of Constant Hitmaker opener “Freeway” – on his own he has more typically delved into the realm of spacey psych-folk, recalling the nihilistic sonic legacies of Suicide and Spacemen 3.

Childish Prodigy, Kurt Vile’s latest album and debut for Matador Records, finds him joined by members of The Violators as well as The War on Drugs and strikes at the surprisingly comfortable middle ground between bombastic lo-fi rock gems and his more fragile bedroom compositions. “Hunchback” – which also kicked off the 2009 EP of the same name – leads off with vigor. Re-recorded as a leaner, bolder version of itself, this track is driven by an immovable, stone-cold guitar groove and Vile’s menacing, outburst-laden ramble. These rousing rock antics quickly give way to the reverbed arpeggios of “Dead Alive” and the subdued, psychedelic “Overnite Religion”. On the latter, shakes of tambourine and maracas frame hypnotic, interwoven acoustic strums as Vile’s vocals mumble along in a meandering drawl, accented with touches of clumsy falsetto. Before you know it “Freak Train” hits with a drum gallop that should now be familiar for fans of Kurt Vile projects, unfolding slowly as layers of guitars and feedback swell into a massive, lo-fi wall of sound. As this careening epic ultimately fades into “Blackberry Song”, another fragile and moving meditation centered on mesmerizing guitar loops, the cycle begins anew. Vile continues to press through Childish Prodigy with a swirl of seesawing approaches and textures, oscillating between the monumental and the stripped-down, the rousing and the restrained. From his take on Dim Stars’ “Monkey”, to the soaring nostalgia of “Amplifier”, to the bass-heavy, drugged-out harmonica-drone of “Inside Lookin’ Out”, he continues to affirm that this record is one of his strongest works yet. And perhaps most impressive is Vile’s ability to coalesce these varying compositions into a smooth and compelling whole that adheres to its own haphazard logic and soon lures, captivates, and absorbs the listener.

“Hits” and “Hitsmaker” are phrases that are used liberally by both record labels and Vile himself in regard to his music and his place within the Philly scene. Liberally and probably spuriously – though he may conjure images of classic AM rockers, there’s no question that such images are distorted and marred in a haze of feedback and lo-fi weirdness. And yet Childish Prodigy, which feels like a first step in that oft-dreaded progression towards “accessibility”, seems to leave Vile a little less immersed in irony (if he ever was). But, it also feels like a natural step. And even if later releases find him composing with increased focus and recording at higher fidelities, it’s hard to imagine Vile giving us something that won’t keep us guessing in some respect.

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Download: Kurt Vile – Overnite Religion
Buy: Order Childish Prodigy from Matador Records as MP3, FLAC, CD, or LP.
Watch: Peep the video for unrelenting standout “Freak Train” down below.

Crank the Treble: WHY?

WHY? - Eskimo Snow

Another review from the pages of Treble. Check out my thoughts on Eskimo Snow, the new album from Oakland’s WHY?. Originally published here, along with a short list of similar albums.

Born in Cincinnati, now residing in the Bay Area of California, Yoni Wolf has built an impressive career on the outskirts of genre. Whether with his avant-garde Anticon brethren in the much-celebrated cLOUDDEAD or through his own solo work, Wolf has long operated under the murky label of “alternative hip-hop”, bizarrely melding key principles of rap with experimental pop sensibilities, indie rock instrumentation, and fragile lo-fi folk rambling, all with illogical success. WHY?, once his solo moniker and now a full-fledged band, had been drifting further from the world of hip-hop even before the release of Eskimo Snow. This latest effort pushes that trend along steadily, delivering on Yoni’s early characterization of it as “the least hip-hop out of anything [he’s] ever been involved with”.

Recorded at the same time as last year’s Alopecia, Eskimo Snow is both distinct and complementary. In concept, it’s a logical progression of the tormented psyche of Yoni’s imagined self. Pressing on from the naïve-weirdness of Oaklandazulasylum, to Elephant Eyelash’s loss of innocence, to Alopecia’s dark sarcasm, here WHY? plunges into a sea of dismal resignation. Sad and bleak, Eskimo Snow plays out like a beautiful, ornate requiem that finds Yoni Wolf deep in reflection as he patiently awaits his impending fate. Openly addressed on the very first lines of the album, he lethargically proclaims: “I wear the customary clothes of my time / Like Jesus did, with no reason not to die”. Later on the dejected anthem “Against Me”, Yoni muses on the extension of his legacy, “Out of every woman on earth, who will I mate with? / Or will I spit empty threats, until all that’s left, is a million zeros printed on a roll of ticker-tape?” before candidly wondering: “Will I gain weight in later life? / And when will someone swing a scythe against me?”. Though he goes on to imagine himself as a mummy trapped in a “shoddy school museum collection”, brutally indulges in self-deprecating confessions (“And I know saying all this in public should make me feel funny / But ya gotta yell something out you’d never tell nobody”), and continually awaits death (“Lay me down in a hearseback / it’s where my new best look is at”), Yoni also begrudgingly recognizes that he lives on (“Then I’m still here / Bearing my watery fruits, if fruits at all / Then I’m still here / Barely understanding what truth that rarely calls”).

Not simply a thematic progression, this album sonically sets itself apart from past works as well. A sort of antithesis to Alopecia’s sharp execution and tight production, WHY? allows Eskimo Snow to breathe and soar. These recordings sound remarkably spacious and instruments feel free and improvised – pianos ripple and surge playfully, arpeggios of vibraphone interlock with melancholic guitar work, drums resonate and seem to emphasize the recording space almost as much as the rhythms themselves. Against the openness of these compositions Yoni’s voice retains its distinctive qualities and cadence, but his delivery more closely resembles singing on Eskimo Snow than on any other album in his discography.

Such subtle transformations help these songs adopt new emotional weight. After all, the perceived inevitability of failing relationships, self-deprecation, disappointment, and death aren’t new topics for Yoni Wolf, but with its rich production, masterful pacing, and tender, mournful execution, Eskimo Snow commands a striking depth that resonates in a more salient and serious way. Where WHY? goes from here is anybody’s guess, but undoubtedly it will be a place all their own.

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Download: WHY? – This Blackest Purse
Buy: You can order Eskimo Snow directly from Anticon Records. The record is also currently streaming in its entirety over at WHY?’s myspace page.