My first experience encountering the band WHY? is equal parts juvenile and 21st century as any I can recall.
I was at a house party on a ranch (welcome to the south, yay) and used one of those song identifying apps on my phone to figure out what I was listening to. I might even be as embarrassed to write that sentence as I am to have lived it.
The song was “Good Friday” from the band’s second album, Alopecia. I was hooked from the onset, the combination of lyrical flow and a patient beat. After the first two verses, I knew I had to own everything they’d ever done:
If you grew up with white boys
Who only look at black and Puerto Rican porno
Cause they want something that their dad don’t got
Then you know where you’re at
Mortaring your earholes shut in a rush with wet coke
In a Starbucks bathroom with the door closed
On booze, I’m left in residue and confused
Like the first time you used salt water
Down on my luck, caught unaware
Like Houdini when the last fist struck
Helmed by Yoni and Josiah Wolf, WHY? is an alt-indie band with a penchant for rhyming lyrics over gorgeous, raw soundscapes. I would be remiss if I called them an alternative hip-hop group, because that isn’t exactly the truth.
Sure, they’re alternative.
And sure, it’s got a hip-hop influence.
But WHY? is not an alternative hip-hop group.
A group like the Beastie Boys would be what I consider an alternative hip-hop group. Maybe Kanye West. Even Die Antwoord.
Consider the fact that, after this record, Yoni and company stray even from the path of using rhyme as a vehicle for their songs. As I wrote about for their latest release Mumps, Etc., they sound downright flaccid in comparison to this album.
Sandwiched between those two releases is Eskimo Snow, which still has elements of Alopecia while transitioning to the emphasis on less rhyming. It’s disheartening to see such a stark deviation from Alopecia, but them’s the breaks I guess.
For all of its 45 minutes, the Wolves and crew craft a deft and unique music experience that sounds more like filling out the questionnaire for a shrink than it does a diary. Yoni’s story-telling style, which is parts prose, rap, and melody, is inventive and careful.
He’s the type of writer whose combinations of words will leave your mouth agape if only for the sheer juxtapositions. As a fan of the band now for several years, I can’t see anyone else being able to pull off what he is able to do with words in the same way.
To me, Alopecia is in a lot of ways like Say Anything’s …Is a Real Boy or David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches, both in the fact that there isn’t a single pisser on here, and the relentless, unflinching dedication to, in so many words, “keeping it real.”
Over the course of 14 tracks, not once does Yoni pull punches. No subject is taboo: at times, graphic depictions of sex, vivid recreations of failed relationships, even down to a self-deprecating internal monologue while vomiting in the parking lot behind Whole Foods (in and of itself a symbol of either elitist hipsterism or a genuine attempt at ingesting better nourishment; both remain to be seen).
His words are at times:
-Playful: “By Torpedo or Crohn’s”– But I’d be okay / cool as a rail / if they’d just let us have health food in Hell
-Visually jarring: “The Hollows” – In Berlin I saw two men fuck in a dark corner of a basketball court / Just the slight jingle of pocket change pulsing
-Very specific cultural references: “Song of the Sad Assassin” – In the basement, I feel / like a loop of the last eight frames of film / Before a slow motion Lee Harvey Oswald / gets shot in the gut and killed
-Even a tad on the morbid side: “These Few Presidents” – Even though I haven’t seen you in years / Yours is a funeral I’d fly to from anywhere
Some of the minute details throughout Alopecia take the album to a completely different realm. On “The Vowels pt. 2,” the band uses a steel chain as auxiliary percussion. Elsewhere, triangle and even a card spun in the spokes of a bike wheel add to the heir of sorta weird, sorta “Why didn’t I think about that?”
Further, the instrumentals on songs like “Gnashville” and “Brook & Waxing” are as cold and distant as they are familiar. It shouldn’t make sense, but it does. That’s much of the narrative of this whole album.
For me, this album has it all: intelligent lyrics from something of a romantic anti-hero; innovative musicianship; and perhaps most important of all, no freaking interludes.
And though that original get-together where I discovered Alopecia happened with a group that I don’t identify with really at all anymore (if only for their listlessness), from that night I gained a new “desert island” record. Perhaps you will enjoy it as much as I do.
From WHY?‘s Alopecia, this is “The Fall of Mr. Fifths” –
Standout tracks: “Simeon’s Dilemma,” “Fatalist Palmistry” and “Good Friday”
Weakest track: Nope.
RIYL: Indie rock with a hip-hop influence. That’s a terrible description but only because of the connotations of bad rapping. This is an indie rock band whose lyrics rhyme a lot of the time. Serengeti or previous project cLOUDDEAD.