If Anticon Records is the black sheep of the underground hip-hop community -- attacked by fellow subterranean MCs for upper-middle class privilege and unlistenable ostentation labeled as experimentation -- than Why? is the black sheep of Anticon thanks to their incorporation of indie rock and folk into the label’s already expansive list of sounds. While the early recordings of Why? (then the work of a solo artist) sounded like the sort of dorm room recording experiments you’d expect from a fan of Brian Eno, Dr. Dre and Bob Dylan -- sonic scraps overlapped with simple drum loops and acoustic plucking -- 2005’s Elephant Eyelash was a brilliant full band effort that took the sonic collage techniques and punchy poetics of hip-hop and combined them with indie rock’s jagged energy and instrumentation. It showed that white boys with acoustic guitars and a taste for hip-hop didn’t have to produce the sort of embarrassing sub-par rhymes and jam band aesthetics of Birkenstock-set faves like Dispatch, while also showing that Why?’s studio skills had become quite refined.
Alopecia continues to show a band with an intriguing amalgamation of sounds, strong sense of songwriting and clever wordplay. The major difference here is the darker tone of the album. If Elephant Eyelash was the soundtrack to an all-night party where hip-hop heads and indie kids could clink beverages while getting down, Alopecia serves as the painful wake up call. The drugs have worn off, the post-drinking depression has kicked in and what once seemed like free love and endless frivolity is now filthy, hollow, and morose.
The album starts with a simple beat built around the sound of some change dropping before some subdued and echoing synth notes, guitar and humming faux-strings rise up to create a minimalist backdrop. Vocalist Yoni Wolf then comes in with usual sing-song timbre that falls somewhere between slam poetry and off-kilter pop and “The Vowels Pt.2” has started. The chorus adds a little morocco shake, extra snare and piano, but basically the song stays locked to its stripped-down tone while Wolf unfolds one of his dizzying arrays of words that takes you from landmines and car bumpers to star charts and robins’ eggs.
“Good Friday” finds a hip-hop beat being ridden by some rusty acoustic notes and a monotone croak that Wolf has never utilized before. It’s a dark and sometimes uncomfortable track that plays like a confessional session set to music. Wolf talks about everything from sending his ex’s new boyfriend text messages to masturbating in an art museum bathroom and waking up hung over on hardwood floors with a casual, almost bitter apathy. Even his more lighthearted lines like, “blowing kisses at disinterested bitches” come off sarcastic and disillusioned.
Elsewhere, the guitar work, plodding drums and piano of first single “The Hollows” sound like the work of some depressed indie-poppers before the chorus’s organ and rolling beat kick in recalling Wolf Parade’s more carnival-esque moments in the process. Wolf is again throwing out his unique brand of poetry with lines like, “In the tourist part I lost fifty euros to a guy with the walnut shells and the marble / it really pissed me off so (ohh) I thought I’d go back to get my money / but all my homies warned me / oh no those gypsies probably got knives.”
Songs like “Fatalist Palmistry” and “Brook & Waxing” work in much the same way by combining some indie rock instrumentation with Wolf’s rhythmic ramblings. Compared to Elephant Eyelash these songs are much more stripped-down. Sure, there’s delay added to snare hits and ghostly backing vocal flourishes among other sonic ornaments, but it seems like Why? have started to focus more on live instrumentation than studio magic or hip-hop’s sonic manipulation. What is unfortunate is that these movements toward a more traditional band sound don’t always yield aurally pleasing results.
“Simeon’s Dilemma” is a boring piano-led piece that exhibits what is perhaps Wolf’s only attempt ever at soulful vocals. The product is like a drunken karaoke performance of a bad love song where flailing and off-key singing make you feel embarrassed as a listener.
Despite the array of sounds Why? explore, it seems Alopecia may have a common theme (it’s definitely not hair loss if this band photo is any indication), which revolves around palms. Throughout the album the underside of hands comes up multiple times, sometimes as a place for songs to be written, sometimes as a harbinger of the future and sometimes even as a newly gained object. Still, it’s hard to piece the frequency of this image together as anything more than just an oft-cited item, but maybe you’ll have a better go at the interpretation thing.
What seems more important here is that Why? -- while perhaps not crafting an album as fun and surprisingly complex as Elephant Eyelash -- have shown that they are still capable of writing songs that draw from the canons of hip-hop, indie and ambient music with great success.