Sunday, December 6, 2009

#26. Why? - Elephant Eyelash (Anticon, 2005) and Alopecia (Anticon, 2008) / #26. 'Pull apart the double helix like a wishbone'

Today's scheduled posts worked out well in that there's an overlap between the single and album entries for once. So instead of separating them I'm just gonna go ahead and fold the single review into my dissection of the albums at hand to save myself from repeating too much over the course of the two.

Why? "Rubber Traits"

Yoni Wolf might just be the most normal person in the Anticon stable. Now, given his associations with cLOUDDEAD and all manner of other acts on the most abstract end of the label's roster that statement might seem a bit wrong, but listening to his two most recent solo - well, kinda solo I guess - missives he comes off as, of all things, a fairly straightforward and standard musician. Really, your tolerance for either Elephant Eyelash or Alopecia depends more on whether or not you like They Might Be Giants than whether or not you like cLOUDDEAD; they're both quirky, often overly personal albums of indie pop with slight hip hop tendencies (less so on Alopecia) as opposed to the other way around. His connections in the Anticon sphere may seem to put Wolf in that subclass of independent rapper with such an obtuse style that he only attracts a very small following, but the truth is that outside of a few more lo-fi hip hop touches his recent output is straight up alternative rock, and in my mind it's much better for it.

Given that Wolf never really shone in cLOUDDEAD anyway, that was Doseone's show from the get go and even if the two could trade lines and seem equal on a few tracks nothing ever changed that. So I had no clue what to expect from Elephant Eyelash when a good friend of mine started raving that it was the best album of 2005. And I absolutely hated it. Well, probably not hated so much as 'was kinda confused by' for pretty much the reasons I outlined above: it was an Anticon release from one-third of the most abstracted hip hop crew I'd heard at that point that sounded more like an Elliott Smith-ian bedroom confessional than anything else. It took a few months after that initial confusion for me to start to warm up to it, mostly individual songs as opposed to the whole thing, but after a while I started to see what my friend was raving about. Sure it was a bedroom confessional but the lyrics were smarter than 90% of that scene, the performances were more heartfelt and the band's sound was at once nothing new yet kind of exciting in a way. It wasn't as great as I was led to believe at first - still isn't, especially in light of Alopecia refining the band's attack so thoroughly - but it was slowly creeping up on me in a good way.

Of course it was probably a great disservice to the album that I got completely hung up on "Rubber Traits" long before the rest could work its charms on me. I kinda hate it when that sort of thing happens, when one song from an album just latches itself into my brain before the rest of the material has a chance to make its case, but god damn was "Rubber Traits" among the best bits of indie pop I'd heard in the decade at that point. More than just being great from a catchiness point of view, but it was immediate. "Rubber Traits" didn't need the excessive amount of time I wound up investing in the other 11 tracks, it pretty much announced right away that it was a damn good song and one I should probably get ready to have on repeat quite often for the next few months. And that was before the second re-iteration of that melancholy 7/8 arpeggio as Wolf crooned 'IIIIIIII don't want to/when I feel like I could have gone longer' completely obliterated any doubt I had that this was a truly special song. In fact I'd guess that a lot of the reason that I kept giving Elephant Eyelash more and more chances was the fact that if "Rubber Traits" was as good as it was there was not stopping the rest of the songs from hitting a similar level of greatness with a bit more time and attention. It paid off in the end, but I still think that "Rubber Traits" is a few steps above what the rest of the album can manage.

It's also the first time that the more twistedly personal side of Wolf's lyrics really became apparent to me. I mean, it goes from self-actualization in the first section, complete with odd yet apt metaphors ('I should go to sleep hungry and wake up with my guts knotted up/and ears open like a burned out hut') and moves on to odd sexual goals ('I want to kiss like taffy/hump gentle on a bed of nails') then to the climax where Wolf announces his intention to always be working on suicide note. It reads like the thoughts of someone bi polar, shifting between extreme emotions without a hint of hesitation, but taken in pieces there's a plethora of great lines (today it just struck me how sad yet hopeful 'I want a patch of blue sky to follow me' really is) and a general sense of searching for some sort of normalcy or even happiness manages to sneak through at times. It's not as fascinating as some of the stuff on Alopecia - more on that in a bit, trust me - but the contrast between some of the lines makes it feel uniquely off and definitely somewhat entrancing.

There's also the contrast between the straightforward strumming of the verses and that arpeggiated chorus riff. I've always had a fondness for use of non-standard time signatures in what could best be called 'pop' songs, so having the chorus not only built off a 7/8 pattern but off complimentary sets of 4-3 and 3-4 syncopations within that framework made me do a music geek backflip at first. It's such a weird way to subdivide the meter, not a consistent use of either but the alternating between them to make a sort of pallindromic set of emphases makes that whole section sound that much more offbeat than it would with just a straight 7/8 riff. Now figure in the fact that Wolf seems to still be singing in full 4/4 over it during that second recurrence - the overlapping vocals and clipped 'oooh-wee-oooh' all but giving it away - adds in a new level of rhythmic tension that I wouldn't think would work anywhere near as well as it does here. That was probably the moment that the song really won me over completely, and it's stuff like that that the rest of Elephant Eyelash was missing to completely win me over from the get go.

Of course with time the rest of the album started to worm its way into me. "Yo Yo Bye Bye" is probably the simplest thing on here yet between the spare piano and light scratching arrangement and the instant melange of catchy/wtf lyrics ('I'm fucking cold like a DQ Blizzard/You act like a slut but you're really a freezer'?) became a nice counterpoint to "Rubber Traits"' subtle complexity. The more pop-based songs came next, both "Gemini (Birthday Song)" and "Whispers into the Other" hitting the right note of TMBG-ishness without getting too heavy on the quirk (also without the accordion, sadly/gladly depending on your point of view on that sort of thing). Then the more downbeat stuff, closer "Light Leaves" especially, got close to being as quietly devastating as "Rubber Traits". Really on my last few passes through it the only songs that really don't work for me are "Act Five" - though 'all the people who taught me card tricks are dying' is a great line - and opener "Crushed Bones" with it's incongruous straddling of Wolf's hip hop and indie-pop personae in light of the straight adherence to the latter for the rest of the time.

That aspect got honed to perfection on Alopecia though. More effectively integrated but not shoving aside the pop aspects, which are also more sharply honed at this point. Within the first two tracks it's obvious that the integration wouldn't be as awkward as it was on "Crushed Bones", and by the time that the album's most emotionally naked moment, penultimate track "By Torpedo or Crohn's," adopts a similar style it's obvious thatWolf has found the balance between Why? the dude wo was in cLOUDDEAD and Why? the indie-pop band he's been releasing albums with for a half decade now. "Good Friday" especially gets it dead on, aside from some of the best lyrics Wolf's put down ever - I could just quote the entire second verse here for an example but I don't have the time - its also got the band in a perfectly evocative mid paced groove that highlights both their growing tightness as a unit - see also "The Hollows" and "Song of the Sad Assassin" for more of that - and Wolf's half mumbled flow. It's the album's "Rubber Traits" in one sense, the song that got me irreversibly hooked on whatever it was offering, but it's a completely different, and some days I'd say better, song on the whole.

The key difference is that it's quality wasn't able to blind me to the rest of the album's greatness. If anything would come close to doing that it would have been "Fatalist Palmistry," but by the point it comes up there's already been a half dozen great songs that each highlight another reason that Alopecia is a vast improvement over its precursor. The band is tighter, Wolf is more fearless as a lyriscist and sounds more comfortable in his role as bandleader and there's hooks that are both obvious and insidious at every turn. "Palmistry" just marks the culmination of all that into one of the best pop songs of 2008 - also in the running for best opening line ever with 'I sleep on my back 'cuz it's good for the spine, and coffin rehearsal' - with all sorts of interesting and catchy asides to keep it afloat. The album may take a slight dip thereafter, though the closing trio of songs is close to the same level as the first seven, but there's enough little moments - Wolf's half-incredulous, half-thankful delivery of 'I can sense somewhere right now I'm being prayed for' on "The Fall of Mr Fifths" is particularly noteworthy - to keep it from being a total squandering of the good will the album had built up.

Really though, it sounds like the arrival of Why? at long last. Prior to this they were tentative but Alopecia is forceful enough to make even the less that enamored take notice of what sort of improvement they've made in the two and a half years since Eyelash. It may not have a defining single like "Rubber Traits" to issue as a calling card of sorts, but taken as a whole it makes it clear that from here on out , Why? are a band to watch intently as opposed to fleetingly. About damn time too.

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