Monday, September 21, 2009

Album: Why? - Eskimo Snow

Eskimo Snow (Why?)
Album: Eskimo Snow
Anticon, 2009
Rating: ********* (9/10)

In 2008, Ohio-born, San Francisco-based Why? generated some excitement with their indie rock-styled rap album Alopecia. Though original and ultimately one of the most interesting releases of 2008, Alopecia was not the most sophisticated of records, including quite a few skippable tracks and only a handful of really memorable ones.

It's only 2009, but Eskimo Snow could hardly be further from its predecessor. Gone are almost all traces of rap, replaced with rich indie rock and twangy hints of country and folk. And yeah, that sounds awful, but it simply blows Alopecia out of the water. Introspective and startlingly earnest, the album shows a drastic leap in maturity. (True, this was recorded at the same time as Alopecia, but it sounds eons more grown-up.)

Despite the dramatic stylistic shift, Eskimo Snow doesn't confuse Why?'s identity as a band, probably because founder-singer-leader Yoni Wolf has a distinct unpolished voice and a distinct lyrical style, whether he's singing or rapping his lines. Of course, he's dropped the zingers of last year ("I never said I didn't have syphilis, Miss Listless") in favor of more brooding lines ("You might find me in the white pages yet / my name is next to numbers / like someone's father's father / left listed in the book of numbers"), but if anything, he's gotten more clever. From loaded images to morbid questions, Wolf's lyrics are relentlessly smart and sincerely affecting.

These rhymes are backed mostly with piano and percussion, but with some guitars and more synthesized sounds stepping up as needed. Ever the student of hip-hop, Wolf keeps a certain rhythmic sensibility even while departing fully from the genre (for the clearest example, check "On Rose Walk, Insomniac"). The best part of the album, however, may be the melodies. Foregoing simple catchy hooks, Eskimo Snow takes on the harder task of making complex melodies while not drifting off course. And in this, it succeeds far beyond expectation, keeping each song memorable and purposeful despite the lack of short-scale repetition. After each moment of excellence, one expects something a bit weaker to follow, but every single one of the album's ten tracks is as good as the last.

Why? albums have all been frank, but until now, Wolf has diluted his vulnerability with wit and the aforementioned "zingers," plays on words and general badassery. On Eskimo Snow, he rips himself open. It's courageous and profound, as he struggles with early adulthood and its profound fears and realizations. Emotional pain, personal battles and insecurities come flooding out, all with intelligence and a very healthy sense of humor.

Mid-way through the album, Wolf muses "Saying all this in public should make me feel funny / but you gotta yield yell[?] something that you never tell nobody." A surprisingly mature, accomplished and touching album, Eskimo Snow may be an upset in critics' year-end and even decade-end lists. And you should definitely get it in touch with your ears as soon as possible - i.e. its official release date, tomorrow.


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