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White Noise: Why? - Elephant Eyelash

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Why? - Elephant Eyelash

Coming from a background of anticon's experimental Hip-Hop groups like cLOUDDEAD and Hymie's Basement, Yoni Wolf's project Why? was never going to make conventional indie-rock. Although all of Why's releases are solid albums, all suffer from the same problems – inconsistency and general lack of range. But that's why I'm reviewing this album, his first, as it shows the greatest range and variation in composition mixed with his always excellent and evocative lyrics; it's the best showcase for how the band works.

The music to these tracks is nothing particularly new. There is a lo-fi fuzz to most of the songs that gives them a pleasant DIY aesthetic, and although the guitar riffs aren't especially original they're never less than compelling and catchy, generally helped along by a stray piano or bass that rounds off the sound. But really, the reason you listen to Why? is because of his lyrics. His vocals are distinctly white and nasal which contrasts rather magnificently on first listen with the way he hurls his voice around, tripping over with Hip-Hop flow in one verse and yowling out with overblown emotion in the next. His writing is always tremendously evocative, whether unveiling his distinctive sense of humour in tracks like Yo Yo Bye Bye; “You get stoned like death in the bible” or when he's hurling out wonderful obscenities like “What do you dream up when I tongue you down” in Gemini (Birthday Song).

Added to this, the first half of the album is consistently enjoyable. Opener Crushed Bones sets the scene perfectly, his vocals tumbling over each other in a humorous self-referential track about the pressures of being an artist in contact with a label and the toil that travel takes when touring. His first line “To inhaling crushed bones through a dried-out white pen” showcases all the individual facets that make his writing so engaging; he turns drugs and sex into obliquely funny poetry while engaging with more serious issues on occasion. Added to this, he has a knack for extraordinarily catchy vocal choruses; “And us in fish net hats / and canvas shoes as was the style that year” is a seemingly simple line that nevertheless will remain lodged in your head for days. The next few tracks keep up the quality; Yo Yo Bye Bye is a more sombre song about a break-up in which some of his more serious lines are kept afloat by his mastery of language and his ability to switch the tone of his voice perfectly to suit the feeling implied; funny turns to deep in the space of a line when he switches from puns to a call out “The Monterey birches were bare / raising their skinny arms out to the sky in surrender / we have to change if we're going to stay together” - you really feel for him through the occasional isolating beauty of his language. Following this Rubber Traits is a hook-laden pop track with some magnificent verses such as “Unfold an origami death mask /and cut my DNA with rubber traits / pull apart the double helix like a wishbone / always be working on a suicide note”; his lyrics rarely fail to hit a sweet spot between funny and profound.

Unfortunately the album just can't quite keep up this momentum. The Hoofs and Fall Saddles are nice enough but don't quite pack the punch as the previous tracks with their slighter compositions (although the chorus of Fall Saddles does drop quite satisfyingly). Waterfalls is an interestingly lo-fi approach but the scratchiness of the instrumentals isn't quite successful and sounds too difficult for an album that generally deals in easy hooks and sounds attached to more complex lyrics; it doesn't quite work so well the other way round. Gemini (Birthday Song) and Sand Dollars again are quite good tracks, but they just don't really have the strength of earlier songs.

Thankfully the last two tracks are both absolute knock-outs. Act Five has one of the best guitar melodies on the LP with a great distortion effect plied liberally throughout the track. The vocals switch up tones rapidly and the metaphor of the final act of a play as the final age of someone's life works well. The track really hits the spot; “All the people who taught me card tricks are dying / I've been trying to get my pop-pop's good looks from old snapshots” is both haunting and slyly funny; showing Wolf's lyrics at their subtlest. Final cut Light Leaves is an undeniable album highlight, the first thing you notice is that the aesthetically difficult combination of sharp guitar janglings and his nasal vocals just isn't present on this track, the two come together very beautifully, and this is without doubt because this is the most serious and philosophical track on the album. It's a discussion of death in modern society, and lines like “and if you do leave the earth / when the earth leaves you” ask some very serious questions. The entire song probes a depth that none of the other tracks do, and it makes one wonder why these themes aren't discussed further in the rest of the album. Granted humour is a big part of his thing, but if Wolf can write like this, it would be nice to see more of it.

This album has some absolutely stellar tracks on it, particularly the first and last few, but droops heavily in the middle. There isn't a whole lot of range on display which is also slightly disappointing; but this is still more interesting than all but the most out-there indie rock outfits. So I'm not saying it's an excellent album, but give it a try because you may find a whole lot to like.


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