A year and a half after releasing the acclaimed Alopecia LP, WHY? returns with their fourth album, Eskimo Snow (released Sept. 22, 2009). The two records are each other’s perfect foil: While last year’s release found Yoni Wolf and the gang delivering a tight set of intricate rhymes, live loops, slurred hooks and acerbic wit, Eskimo Snow offers a sung, sobering take on mortality that unfurls in lush waves of Americana and pop-infused psych-folk. Pre-mixed in Nashville by Lambchop’s Mark Nevers (Silver Jews, Bonnie Prince Billy, Calexico) and worked over by Alopecia engineer Eli Crews, this album is WHY?’s most live-sounding yet – a shadowy and sprawling piece as intimate in subject matter as it is handsome in timbre.
WHY? actually recorded Eskimo Snow at the same time as Alopecia, at Minneapolis’ Third Ear studio, with Fog’s Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson rounding out a live quintet. The vision for two separate albums emerged on a snowed-in night after a hot toddy or two. If Alopecia, however inexplicably, maintains a summery tone, then Eskimo Snow captures the bite and resignation associated with the Midwestern winters that these Cincinnati boys grew up with.
“These Hands” opens the album up rich and with deliberate pacing, Doug matching Yoni word-for-word (you’ll find no vocal overdubs here) and the rhythm section operating under heavy reverb. Vibraphone likewise duets with piano, windy wordless vocals fly around the atmosphere, and wet footsteps soon carry us to “January Twenty Something.” Here, you’re in the room with WHY?, listening to the bass rattle the drums and the drums rattle the vibes. Amid this folksy grandness, the whole crew sings for the chorus, bending their harmony into a gorgeously warped drawl. Next, “Against Me” brings the album’s brightest moment yet: a crescendo of bells that eventually dips into an aural whirlpool while Yoni spins picturesque observations like a countrified Dylan.
Across Eskimo Snow, Yoni weighs his ability to create a legacy against life’s transience. On the luxe, pedal-steel-drenched “Even The Good Wood Gone,” he transposes himself with a mummy in a museum, begging, “No flash photography,” drawing a line from the dubious promise of fame to the brittleness of antiquity. For “Into The Shadows Of My Embrace,” he explores sex and decay while the track vacillates between a live wall-of-sound and spare church organ passages. “One Rose” is gentler, sporting a Western stride and dark piano hits whose echoing blackness mimics Yoni’s wistful poems. Toward the song’s end, the chorus of Alopecia’s “A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under” makes a stormy reprise.
Most impressively, this record presents a band uninhibited, but evermore accomplished at imbuing sound with mood. “On Rose Walk, Insomniac” rolls forth on a tempestuous din, Josiah drumming hard through the chorus, where Yoni’s voice sounds like its running through a Leslie speaker. “Berkeley By Hearseback” comes in so soft, the guitar tones feel like waves of grain next to the splashy cymbals and that Jim James-worthy cowboy croon ricocheting through the background. “This Blackest Purse” weaves a melancholy that shirks dourness for a curious smile. And when the titular song brings the album to a hushed close, Eskimo Snow’s place in the narrative becomes clear. Rather than spit at death or threaten it with suicide, Yoni stops bucking against the inevitable. In the process, the band discovers a rich place that the rest of us can happily live within.
Josiah Wolf Bio:
On his debut album, WHY? multi-instrumentalist Josiah Wolf offers up a rare solo work with true legs of its own. His voice deep and straight at times and impossibly fragile at others, Wolf deals both in visual snapshots that illustrate the wistfulness of a mundane moment, and canny excavations of those poignancies that lie beneath the surface: tough triumphs, tougher truths, and outright failures. Wolf’s lean poems are set to an autumnal mix of warm folk and easy psychedelia played out (by Wolf alone) on guitar, vibes, kalimba, Hammond organ, bells, bass and drums to name a few. The end result is a sort of chamber pop minus the showy sweeps – virtuosity without the virtuoso – making Jet Lag as impressive in its subtle execution as it is a timeless, heartfelt listen.
“The Trailer and the Truck” begins the album like a lost thought on its way out of sleep. Notes freed by mallets bounce into the fuzzy foreground, bent chords stretch out from metal strings, then bundled bursts of drum-and-strum clear the way for Wolf’s voice. On “Master Cleanse (California),” he mulls over region and religion atop spare acoustics and a kaleidoscopic chorus where shimmering sounds move to an elastic tempo. One of the album’s best follows, “The Opposite of Breathing,” whose shuffling beat, cool tones and rich texture evoke late ’60s Greenwich Village. In that space, Wolf’s lyrics find him as Jet Lag often does: on the other side of divorce, hoping for the beatific wind that’ll blow him onward.
Throughout these songs, style and substance are treated with equal aplomb. The rolling bass and bright vocals of “The New Car” split the difference between The Zombies and Daniel Johnston. “Skull in the Ice” is lush in its instrumentation – blending bossa guitar, marimba, and tinkling keys – but sports Wolf’s most intimate singing yet. “The Apart Meant” rolls out a cloudy darkness, to which Wolf replies David Berman-like, “I guess it’s goodbye now/Did I guess wrong?/’I guess it’s goodbye’/Is a broken man’s song.” After such heaviness, the quiet Paul Simon folk of “That Kind of Man” feels like fresh air, while “Ohioho” is genuinely sunny, with Wolf following a different road with a different girl by his side.
Jet Lag came together following the dissolution of an 11-year relationship, and over the course of a move from California back to the Midwest, where Wolf grew up. It’s no surprise then, that the album contains such deeply moving works as the spooky, Cohen-esque “Is the Body Hung” and the warm, grand tribute to past love, “In The Seam.” But Jet Lag’s final two songs only look back long enough to prepare their author for newness. The stormy “Gravity Defied” conveys that knowing resignation that eventually comes, while on album-ender “The One Sign,” the breeze that Wolf was waiting on becomes a gale threatening to crash a loaded airplane. Rather than cower together or pray to God, however, the passengers stand to face fate head on. Wolf’s final lyric – “‘Heaven help me’ are just words / That time will make you say” – echoes out before the shelter offered by the song dissolves into the outdoors.
WHY? & JOSIAH WOLF
05-27 – Vancouver, BC – The Biltmore Cabaret*
05-28 – Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom*
05-30 – Eugene, CA – WOW Hall*
06-02 – Oakland, CA – New Parish Of Oakland*
06-03 – Pomona, CA – Glasshouse*
* = w/ The Donkeys
05-29 – Gorge, WA – Sasquatch Festival
06-26 – Minneapolis, MN – First Ave %
07-01 – Calgary, AB – Dickens for Sled Island Festival
07-02 – Calgary, AB – Olympic Plaza for Sled Island Festival
07-09 – Cincinnati, OH – Mid Point Indie Summer Series @ Fountain Square
07-17 – Chicago, IL – Pitchfork Festival
% = w/ Deerhoof & Southeast Engine
JOSIAH WOLF ONLY
05/22 Minneapolis, MN 7th St. Entry ~
05/23 Fargo, ND The Aquarium
05/24 Billings, MT The Railyard
05/25 Missoula, MT The Palace
05/26 Seattle, WA The Vera Project %#
05/31 Eureka, CA Nocturnum #$
06/01 Reno, NV The Underground (The Treehouse Club) #
06/04 La Jolla, CA Che Cafe !
06/05 Tucson, AZ Solar Cultural Gallery !
06/06 Phoenix, AZ Trunk Space !
06/08 Salt Lake City, UT Urban Lounge !
06/09 Denver, CO Hi Dive !
06/10 Lawrence, KS Jackpot Music Hall !
06/11 St. Louis, MO The Firebird !
06/12 Bloomington, IN The Bishop !
06/15 Buffalo, NY Mohawk Place
06/16 South Burlington, VT Higher Ground
06/17 Northampton, MA Iron Horse
06/18 Philadelphia, PA Kung Fu Necktie
06/19 Brooklyn, NY Knitting Factory
06/21 Pittsburgh, PA Morning Glory Coffeehouse
# = w/ The Donkeys
% = w/ AU
$ = w/ Citay
@ = w/ Serengeti
! = w/ Cars & Trains
~ = w/ Dark Dark Dark
Band page: http://www.whywithaquestionmark.com/