Even after a good night's sleep and a quadruple shot of espresso, Yoni Wolf was exhausted. The prior night he'd returned home from a grueling five months on the road, during which time he broke his hand, contracted the mumps, and suffered a stress-related breakdown. Forty-four shows in 46 days — the schedule his band WHY? kept following the release of its breakthrough album Alopecia in March — will do that to you. After a tough stint across the United States, where the only two off-days involved ten-hour drives in a cramped van, there were a couple of busy weeks in Europe, and finally, once it all caught up with Yoni, a week laid up in a Stockholm hotel room nursing a wounded hand and a swollen face. "The spring was insanely difficult," he recalled with discernible restraint.
Back in Oakland, where Yoni keeps an apartment near Piedmont Avenue, he wasn't sure if it felt like home or just another city in another country. "It's weird to be back," he said more than once. His mind was still in travel mode, which is convenient considering that in less than two weeks he'd be back on the road for another two and a half months.
None of this would have been possible without Alopecia, WHY?'s third full-length for Bay Area label Anticon. From the outset, its critical and commercial reception outpaced its predecessors, completing WHY?'s progression from obscure to buzz-worthy. 2003's Oaklandazulasylum and 2005's Elephant Eyelash were essentially boutique releases, so difficult to absorb that they likely baffled more listeners than they hooked. The band's skewed approach to underground hip-hop and folksy indie-pop, topped with Yoni's trademark nasally sing-raps and oddball lyrics may have been alienating to some, but to fans of the arcane it was all part of the appeal. Alopecia took that appeal and ran with it.
The process began auspiciously when WHY? ditched its DIY roots to record in a proper studio for the first time. Yoni (percussion and keyboard), brother Josiah Wolf (drums and vibraphone), and Doug McDiarmid (keyboards) decamped to Minneapolis for five weeks to record in a local studio with two friends from the band Fog. Working off detailed demos that Yoni had painstakingly arranged and roughly recorded, WHY?'s new five-member studio ensemble recorded the bones of each song live and directly to tape, then went back later to add a multitude of accompanying tracks and studio touches.
"Playing like this was a new thing for us, which I really enjoyed," said Yoni. "If you have a band, you might as well utilize it and play like a band. This time, it very much had the feeling of a group of people playing together." Collaboration did wonders for the record's mind-warping meeting of pop, rap, and psychedelia — so thorough that you never can say which of the three you're hearing. But thanks to the attention to detail and structural sturdiness of Yoni's compositions, the songs never lose themselves in the wash of sound.
Yoni's lyrics too have ascended to new levels, beyond the novelty territory they sometimes occupied and into legitimate rap that any hip-hop lyric aficionado could appreciate. "That's one thing that is a very big difference between Alopecia and anything before it," he explained. "I started writing consciously in rhyme schemes, where before that I would just write the ideas in a raw form and then would later find the natural rhyme scheme." The distinction may seem subtle, yet the effect is anything but. As the sound of a word becomes more crucial, its meaning becomes more flexible. The results can be surprising, to Yoni as much as anyone else.
"That's the fun thing about using rhyme," he said. "You have to always question whether the rhyme is driving you or not, or whether it's just an added bonus because it sounds interesting. Someone like Shakespeare, he's never driven by the rhyme." Yoni also took rhyming tips from sources as varied as Joanna Newsom, Bob Dylan, Eminem, and Jay-Z. The approach yielded an album's worth of gems, like this example from standout track "The Fall of Mr. Fifths": I'm unavoidable like death this Christmas/Is this twisted? Why be upset?/I never said I didn't have syphilis, Miss Listless/Hard like the bricks I pound my fists with/I mean she's hard like the bricks that I pound with my fists.
A lifetime of honing lyrics and perfecting rhyme likely wouldn't do much to change Yoni's singing voice, stark contrast though it is to the mellow, faintly Midwestern midrange in which he speaks. But if the music is good enough to make us forget that WHY? is a downright confounding name; that frontman Yoni Wolf, a bearded Jewish rapper from the Midwest, delivers peculiar lyrics in a high-pitched drawl; and that its style is neither rap nor pop nor Shakespearean sonnet, but some strange fusion of the above, then it has done its job. And without a doubt, the music is that good.
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