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.