Why? – ‘Eskimo Snow’

December 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, December 2, 2009.

Why?
Eskimo Snow
(Anticon/Stomp)

The general chitchat around Why?’s shift from esoteric MC and occasional producer with oddball, exploratory hip-hop iconoclasts cLOUDDEAD, to solo cut’n’paste experimenter, to the leader of fully-fledged indie band has gained traction as something of a celebratory, coming-of-age story. It’s a discourse that has been circulating for years around electronic acts. When an artist makes a change from non-traditional instrumentation and compositional methods to a more conventional band setting, it’s more often than not trumped up as some kind of grand ascent.

In Why?’s case, it’s almost as if Yoni Wolf’s contributions to experimental hip-hop – both as a lyricist and a producer – have been framed as a passing phase on his journey to ‘real’ creative enlightenment as a nasally-voiced, fuzzy-haired indie guy. Truth be told, it’s all a little hard to take. The fact that the scant rap-related component of last year’s Alopecia – the brilliant ‘Good Friday’ – made for one of the record’s strongest and most convincing sketches didn’t seem to matter.

All that said, Wolf has definitely grown into melodic songwriter. There was evidence on 2005’s endearing, bedroom-stitched Elephant Eyelash, and it was written all over Alopecia (Why?’s virgin foray into a professional studio setting). Wolf had managed to retain much of his arcane knack for personal and familial detail, his brutally self-effacing humour, his almost unhealthy fascination with mortality and suicide, whether or not he rapped or sung.

Enter fourth long-player Eskimo Snow. Recorded during the same sessions that resulted in Alopecia, hip-hop it most surely ain’t. In fact, it’s the group’s most live, most instrumental and most band-like record by far. In many ways, it’s a huge progression. If Wolf wants to be the leader of band here, then he’s doing it; there are no tricks, few overdubs and swathes of beautiful instrumental detail and tonal shimmer. The musical references among this string of cuts veer closer to that paired-back psych and folkie Americana than Wolf’s once gritty, static-strewn collages.

There are some lovely moments. The glittering piano overture of ‘January Twenty Something’ and the swooping walls of guitars and keys that prop up the wonderful ‘Against Me’ have Wolf in vintage, perversely self-reflective form. “Will I gain weight in later life / And when will someone swing a scythe against me,” he posits. Later crooning: “Out of every woman on Earth who will I mate with / And will I spit empty threats until all that’s left / Is a million zeros printed on a role of tickertape.” Indeed, save centrepiece ‘Into the Shadows of My Embrace’, there’s a real darkness to Eskimo Snow. While Wolf’s interest in death has always been apparent, it’s unyielding here. It works in parts. The stunningly rendered ‘Berkeley by Hearsback’ tempers its subject matter with enough musical and humoristic nuances to offset the gloom (“Lay me down in a hearsback / it’s where my new best look is at”), while elegiac title track and closer ‘Eskimo Snow’ captures such an unfathomable sadness that you can’t help but get swept up.

But Eskimo Snow’s strengths also reveal its limitations. While Why?’s arrangements glow like never before, they lack the idiosyncrasies that made earlier material so dynamic. Meanwhile, Wolf seems to be digging himself a hole of dread so deep we can barely make out his ample crop of curls.

Why? may have come of age as a band, and Wolf as a songwriter, but his abstract hip-hop attributes were too damned good to be cast off as a cute, bygone chapter. If this often beautiful, nonetheless one-dimensional record is anything to go by, he still needs rap in his arsenal to remain at his most vital.

Dan Rule

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