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Let's get some things out of the way. WHY? is a band-three Cincinnati-bred gentlemen who've shared a whole lotta past together. Two of them are brothers. Yoni Wolf, who founded the project by his lonesome in 1998 is one of those (see also: cLOUDDEAD, Greenthink, Reaching Quiet). The other is Josiah Wolf, who first started hitting the skins at their father's synagogue during worship service. They like being in a band together so don't ask about it. WHY?'s third fella is Doug McDiarmid, a high school friend born to French teachers, discovered by the Wolfs whilst playing guitar in a Steve Miller cover band. These men are handsome and meticulous, especially when they do ugly and unwieldy things with words and music.
Like we said, the project started awhile ago. Really, with Yoni in the synagogue basement on a forgotten four-track, recording bad poems and sloppy beats that none of us will ever hear (again, don't ask). Flash forward through his monumental discovery of A Tribe Called Quest and his later untimely egress from art school and you'll arrive at the next most pivotal moment, when the punctuated letters W-H-Y-? graduated from an enigmatic tag loopily scrawled across various Ohio surfaces to something printed on tapes, fliers, records and CDs. As a founding member of Anticon, Yoni had one of the first releases on the label: the Split EP! with Odd Nosdam, WHY?'s half a kaleidoscopic seven-song suite of sweetly sour song-rap.
And then the albums began, with the cult-revered Oaklandazulasylum in 2003, documenting WHY?'s quickening march from an enticingly idiosyncratic outside-of-art, inside-the-bedroom experiment to the fiercely chopsy and wildly creative band of badasses they are today. (If you haven't heard their stuff, you should check it out. It's like pop-inflected psychedelic folk-hop, or chamber music imagined by the most lovelorn and death-anxious Beat Poet that never lived.) 2005's lauded Elephant Eyelash paved the way for tours (Silver Jews, Yo La Tengo, Islands), collabs (Danielson, Department of Eagles, Hymie's Basement, Subtle) and more albums. Oh, and they lived in Oakland for awhile. (You remember that, don't you?)
Everyone comes into their own at different times. For WHY?, most agree that this happened across 2008 and 2009 with a pair of oddly engrossing stunners-the tightly rhythmic Alopecia and its quieter, kinda country cousin Eskimo Snow-which turned the oft-boxed music world on its hella gross cauliflower ear. High marks were awarded by the coolest of customers as the band momentarily swelled to five with the induction of Fog guys Andrew Broder (shred) and Mark Erickson (boom). When they finally came off of the road, WHY? set themselves to humbler tasks: turning out intimate tunes for lucky fans (via a Golden Ticket mail-order merch contest) and intricate beats for rapper Serengeti's praised Family & Friends LP.
Now, it happens to be 2012, so there's a new EP called Sod in the Seed and...
Nipping at the ragged heels of their eagerly devoured Sod in the Seed EP, WHY? at last unleash their fifth long-player, a meticulous work of morbid fascination and offbeat romanticism dubbed Mumps, etc. Though there is a mysterious sickness (perhaps of the mind) that lurks about these thirteen songs, one might also imagine the title as describing the musically swole state of these three Midwestern men as they bring their sound into glisteningly buff focus. Yoni Wolf, brother Josiah and Doug McDiarmid are in the pocket, the unbreakable rock core at the center of a spinning ball of sonic kaleidoscopie. And all the things we love about them are still true: the grinning sun-warped choruses, that jangly Western lope, those confessionals cut with wry wit and crude details, set dancing down the odd knots of complex poetic daisy chains. It's just that ... well, all of it sounds better than ever this time around.
Part of that is due to how Mumps, etc. was made. Far from their native Cincinnati, the fellas spent a month and a half in the Denton, Texas, studio of Centro-Matic's Matt Pence. They showed up with a pile of demos suspected to be nearly done-some five years in the making-but their aspirations evolved in the shadow of the great University of North Texas music school. Reaching out to a professor therein, they wrangled an ace crew of green-and-white gunslingers to exact their wild schemes: a string quartet, an eight-person choir, woodwinds, horns. The whole set was recorded to two-inch tape (no loops), produced by the Wolf brothers, and mixed in Atlanta by Graham Marsh (Cee Lo Green, Katy Perry) with Yoni. Thus every song pops exactly as it should, smearing genre with pointed intent until the end result became an articulated work of unusual artistry and catchiness-a WHY? record, naturally.
We're not here to tell you what to like; the highlights are many. There's the opener "Jonathan's Hope," rattling forth over a pile of cooing ladies and crunching percussion, its measured optimism leveled at the songs that follow. There's "Waterlines," which folds idyllic harps figures into a darkly shimmering beat while Yoni drops backwards brags-"Rocking soccer socks with sandals like, 'Yeah, bro.'"-and dissects his public persona. "White English" bounces over some kind of mutant mariachi dub, a continuation of the coiled grooves WHY? devised for Serengeti's Family & Friends (2011). "Thirst" bends Mumps' spare chamber-pop into a desert-worthy drawl, bullwhips cracking and spurs jingling under a tale about black cowboys and failing faith. And "Kevin's Cancer"-written for an afflicted fan-hits upon a moment of WHY?-style clarity: "I know with no uncertainty, that I'm uncertain and I don't know."
Still, we are fairly certain that "Paper Hearts" is something extra special. Offering but a single two-and-a-half minute verse, the song is gorgeously detailed and surprisingly uncoded, unspooling as it goes a gut-wrenching end to an important relationship, and shining harsh light on a narrator who often likes to hide his truths in acts of on-album villainy. ("Bitter Thoughts," featuring Liz Wolf, being a perfect example.) So when Mumps, etc. ends one track later, with Yoni promising providence over his own death while pizzicato strings brighten the closing corners, we understand both the sad futility and the unabashed hope wrapped up in that statement. And, along with the taut arrangements and imaginative musicianship, it's that skewed but forever winking eye on the human condition that keeps us wrapped up in WHY?
Eskimeaux is a four-piece outfit that delivers rock versions of songs from smith's recording project, whose songs center on exploring down to the bottom of what is really important. The live show is influenced by the delicate folk melodies of Vashti Bunyan, and draws its rock inspiration from East Coast friends such as Krill and Porches. The intricacies of eskimeaux's melodic structures serve to highlight moments of blossoming insight, while the heavy low end of the project drives the songs forward towards catharsis. Each song draws the audience into a towering, burnt-out cathedral of sound and then promptly tears it down. The flying debris and showering sparks create a determined and effective display of self-awareness and intention. The project's looping, mirrored song structures act as a rumination on the details and infinitely significant contingencies of smith's relationships and private thoughts about herself, while shaking, heavy drums and frantic synthesizer phrases combine to produce the emotional devastation and determination central to the project