October 11, 2005

Why? "Elephant Eyelash"

Earlier this year, ex-cLOUDDEAD member Yoni Wolf (better known as Why?) released Sanddollars, an EP that strayed from the Anticon template by emphasizing live instrumentation over murky, mechanized beats and shoehorning Wolf’s stream-of-consciousness rants into verse/chorus format. It was arguably the first Anticon release since cLOUDDEAD’s breakup that you could sing along to, and it felt like a new vista had been opened up in Wolf’s songwriting. The musicians that helped Wolf record Sanddollars (brother Josiah Wolf, Doug McDiarmid and Matt Meldon) have since gelled into an honest-to-goodness backing band and recorded a full album collaboratively with him. If the transition that Wolf’s music made between his first solo album Oaklandazulasylum and Sanddollars was like a black-and-white movie being colorized, then his new album Elephant Eyelash is like that same movie getting the IMAX treatment.

Whenever a critic says that an album “rewards repeated listens,” I usually interpret it as a sneaky way of saying that it sucks, or that I’ll have to force myself to like it. In the case of Elephant Eyelash, though, multiple listens on an excellent stereo system are absolutely necessary. Even though Wolf sings more than he raps, he still delivers his lyrics rapidly enough to induce whiplash. If you use this record merely as background music, you’ll think that he’s just spitting out nonsense when, in reality, he’s using surreal images and odd analogies to say relatable (and often poignant) things. Wolf’s backing band matches him every step of the way, supplying backdrops that are just as layered and indelible as his lyrics. On “The Hoofs,” he sings, “There’s something new in the foreground/in a poster of some Asian mountains/that says ‘patience’ in the funky italics,” and it makes complete sense. Such attention to detail is what makes this album great.

Opener “Crushed Bones” begins with brushed drums, mellow keyboards and finger-picked acoustic guitars. Like most emcees, Wolf lets out a few spoken exhortations before the first verse. Instead of rapping, though, he unleashes a gorgeous falsetto and starts singing about the changes his personality has undergone through the years, placed in the context of changing fashion trends --- from “navy blue hoodies and khakis” to “fishnet hats and canvas shoes.” Halfway through, the music changes key and gain intensity. At the song’s climax, someone starts punching instruments out of the mix, and Wolf briefly switches from singing back to rapping. When he resumes singing, the song quickly reverts back to the placid state in which it began before ending once and for all. The song’s parabolic structure is what makes it memorable, despite the absence of a strong hook.

“Yo Yo Bye Bye” is one of many songs on Elephant Eyelash that examines the decay of a relationship. It begins with Wolf talking to his girlfriend on someone else’s cell phone during a sound check in San Antonio. He laments her frigidity in one line (“you act like a slut but you‘re really a freezer“), only to point the finger back at himself in the next (“I’m f*ckin’ cold like a DQ blizzard”). The song reaches its apex, though, when he ditches the similes and simply speaks his mind: “We have to change if we’re gonna stay together.” The rhythm track switches from turntable scratching to live drumming, a tactic that underscores the confusion Wolf expresses in his lyrics; meanwhile, watery piano chords bring out the melancholy in his voice. Wolf addresses his grievances again four songs later on “Gemini (Birthday Song).” Against chiming guitars, wheezing synthesizers and weepy pedal steel, he laments the lack of physical intimacy in his relationship: “When I ask you to kiss my pulse/You offer to start the shower.” This time, though, he’s got a Greek chorus repeating his lyrics to him at crucial instances. Four songs later (“Whispers Into the Other”), he gets fed up and shakes off his dependency on her. In a strangely assertive and soulful voice, he issues his parting shot: “I don’t want to dance with your shadow no more!”

When Wolf isn’t venting about girl trouble, he’s pondering his own mortality. Elephant Eyelash closes with a particularly morbid one-two punch. “Act Five” revolves around the lament, “All the people who taught me card tricks are dying/I’ve been trying to get my pop’s good looks off from old snapshots.” Wolf wails against a backdrop of swelling drum rolls, piercing recorders and martial acoustic guitars. It’s a more dramatic and eloquent reflection on death than anything Phil Elvrum’s done since the Microphones’ Mount Eerie. Then, there’s “Light Leaves,” which Wolf spends planning his own funeral: “I don’t want no casket/No saddle/No see-through plastic mask!”

Although Wolf’s lyrics take center stage throughout the album, his backing band seriously upstages him on “Fall Saddles.” Wolf’s lyrics about listening to old audio letters from people he once knew are as vivid and reflective as ever. However, the music goes through SEVEN different permutations in less than three minutes: funereal horn blurts straight out of a Neutral Milk Hotel record, a brief homage to the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a fuzz-rock blowout are just three of them. If Wolf had attempted to make a song like this on his own, it probably would’ve been a mess --- check out the album he did under the Reaching Quiet name if you don’t believe me. The only time the band’s arrangements falter is, ironically, on the remake of Sanddollars‘ title track, during which they tack on an extra verse that feels…well, tacked-on!

That quibble aside, Elephant Eyelash should completely silence anyone who doubted Wolf’s ability to find his own voice after the breakup of cLOUDDEAD. Not only has his writing become consistently incisive, but his singing has also grown by leaps and bounds. You’d never think a voice as thin and nasal as his could hit the notes that it does until you hear these songs. If you can appreciate hip-hop and indie-pop equally, and you need some good music to get over that former special someone with, this album was made for you. Get thee hence to the record store!

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.anticon.com/a-why.htm
Label Website: http://www.anticon.com

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