WHY? Alopecia 10 Year Anniversary Show
15711 Waterloo Road
Cleveland, OH, 44110
Doors 7:30 PM / Show 8:30 PM
This event is all ages
"I'll go unknown by torpedo or Crohn's / Only those evil live to see their own likeness in stone." It's the kind of couplet you'd carve into a wall whilst savoring the irony at hand, but when Yoni Wolf spit the line ten years ago he was blissfully, broodily unaware that he and his band WHY? were creating a career-defining album—one so fan-adored that it would go out of print, and so influential that the art-pop heroine Lorde herself would lovingly steal the very lyric quoted above. When it dropped in 2008, Alopecia not only marked WHY?'s evolution from a sonically collaged mostly solo project to a live-recorded powerhouse band of badass multi-instrumentalists. It also minted a genre of one: wryly written, poignantly posed, simultaneously swaggering and heart-rending song-rap that jangles like folk, bursts like psych-rock, and sways like chamber pop. To this day, there is no other group in the known universe that sounds or feels like WHY? does on Alopecia. The album's 2018 reissue cheekily etches that aural likeness into our musical history.
Revisiting these songs is like catching up with an old, very strange friend—one who obsesses over his mortality, wonders if his ex is some sort of god, identifies as a "lifelong local foreigner," and does his emotional unpacking in public restrooms*. When Yoni sings that he's been "faking suicide for applause in the food courts of malls" on album opener "The Vowels Pt. 2," you aren't sure if it's a metaphor about fame or a real thing he did. Our narrator's odd charm is Alopecia's most enduring gift. Inspired by Bob Dylan and Joanna Newsom, Yoni packs confessional candor and vivid detail into honeyed melodies. Energized by Lil Wayne and MF DOOM, he seeds self-effacing boasts and mesmeric wordplay within complex rhyme schemes. The result is a swirl of humor, desperation, and beauty that both pulls us into his world and draws out our own proud, wounded inner weirdo. As Yoni coos on "The Hollows," "This goes out to dirty-dancing, cursing, backmasking, back-slidden pastors' kids / and all us Earth growths; some planted, some pulled."
That perspective formed in our hero's native Cincinnati—born in the basement of his rabbi dad's synagogue when lil Yoni started making songs on a dusty 4-track, and come of age in a different basement in his college years where, instead of graduating, he teamed with roommate Doseone and pal Odd Nosdam to form the revered avant-rap trio cLOUDDEAD. These family and friends haunt Alopecia—Dose raps on "The Hollows"; Nosdam is namechecked on "A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under"; Yoni's father and the language of faith appear often—creating layers of narrative for WHY?'s typically deep-diving fans to unpack. By 2008, Yoni was settled in Oakland, adding to the legacy of the Anticon label/collective he cofounded (most notably with his official 2003 LP debut Oaklandazulasylum). Though his brother Josiah Wolf and fellow Ohioan Doug McDiarmid moved west and joined WHY? before 2005's Elephant Eyelash, they had not yet recorded as a proper unit, or in a proper studio. Hell, Yoni'd never even tried to make his words rhyme before.
You already know that they did all of those things and were rewarded with Alopecia, an album as adventurous as it is accessible, and remarkably fluid. To wit, "These Few Presidents" slides between modes, from upbeat and forced-smile bubbly to seething and slowly roiling. "Song of the Sad Assassin" is a tempo-blind rollercoaster of piano, vibes, vocal percussion, guitar, drum, and bass. And "Twenty Eight" spins a feedback-drenched rap beat, something like the Bomb Squad on acid, on a carousel. WHY?'s mind meld is all the more impressive considering they left their jerry-rigged home setup for Minneapolis' Third Ear studio, in the winter, and added Fog members Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson to the lineup. Over 20 days, the thermometer never cracked zero. There were hot toddies aplenty, Miles Davis records on repeat, and cramped quarters. In this heady, unfamiliar space, Yoni worried it was all for naught. But while recording "Good Friday," a brutal breakup song, he caught full-body chills. It wasn't the blizzard outside.
The Alopecia sessions were so successful, in fact, that they spawned two LPs (WHY?'s fourth, Eskimo Snow, arrived 18 months later). This one was finished in Berkeley and when time came to name it, Yoni chose a word that appears nowhere in the lyrics. He'd recently found a hole in his beard which his old art-hop comrade Slug of Atmosphere identified as alopecia. The concept fit: more than on any other WHY? release, Yoni was uncovering his anger, anxiety, and ambition—celebrating his ugly by wearing his lowest of lows like badges of honor, devising characters to exorcise his inner demons, and arriving at begrudging self-affirmation. There's a line on "Brook & Waxing," reprised on "By Torpedo or Crohn's," that's become the loudest shout-along moment at WHY? concerts and the most likely quote to find tattooed in the crowd: "While I'm alive I'll feel alive / And what's next I guess I'll know when I've gotten there." Therein lies Alopecia's genius: we'll never get "there," not in 10 years past or 10 years more, but the beauty is in pushing on.
*really, there are no fewer than six bathroom scenes on Alopecia; can you find them all?
A low tone opens the album on "This Ole King" as acoustic pluck and upright bass form a Western bedrock beneath Wolf's fragile voice. But as the song pushes on, the playing gets brighter and the vocal becomes a mantra-like hum inspired by Ali Farka Touré's blues, before rolling into a second part rich with chiming keys and twisting harmony—Brian Wilson's kaleidoscopic vision of pop. If there's new litheness here, it's probably because Wolf spent much of the time between albums collaborating—with ex/muse Anna Stewart as the fuzz-pop duo Divorcee, and MC Serengeti as the puckishly depressive Yoni & Geti. And if there's a lithe newness, it may be that Wolf excised some nostalgia via his 2014 solo tapes—one re-recording choice raps from his own catalog, and another covering cuts by artists like Bob Dylan and Pavement. It's no wonder, then, that "The Water" handily morphs a moody folk tune into some strange new form of full-band dub. Or that "One Mississippi" bounces along happily over a flurry of bizarre percussion, whistled melodies, and trippy synthesizer blips. Perhaps most impressive is "Consequence of Nonaction," which vacillates between a quiet meditation for guitar/voice/clarinet, and wild, sax-strewn astral art-funk.
Movement is a key theme of Moh Lhean. It's a breakup album without a romantic interest—coded within the lyrics is a tale about fleeing the seductions of a wintry figure for something synonymous with spring. "Easy" plays like award against the old ghost who haunts "January February March," while "George Washington" places our host in a tiny watercraft, "paddling for land/hand on heart and heart in hand" as that faceless malevolent force stays ashore. While writing these songs, Wolf suffered a severe health scare far from home. Rather than drive him to depression, his brush with mortality imparted an incongruous impression of peace and connection to the living. At the end of "Proactive Evolution," wherein WHY? enlists mewithoutYou's Aaron Weiss to celebrate the stubborn persistence of humankind, Wolf samples not only thinkers like Sharon Salzberg and Ram Dass, but his actual doctors—the voices that helped shape his new outlook. Sure, Wolf poses as many questions as ever. Moh Lhean's gorgeously psychedelic closer, "The Barely Blur" with Son Lux, puzzles over the nature of existence. But rather than leave us with the macabre chill of death, as many a WHY? LP has, the song dissolves into the infinite—the sound of the Big Bang.
Don't bother asking Wolf what "Moh Lhean" means. He won't tell you. It's the name of his home studio, where friends and family—WHY? regulars Josiah, Matt Meldon, Doug McDiarmid, Liz Wolf, and Ben Sloan, plus a handful of Ohioans—gathered to record this (and also at Josiah's studio, dubbed El Armando). And like the titles of Alopecia and Mumps, Etc., it references a concrete thing that Wolf experienced. Most likely it's something to do with letting go, rebirth, coming home to a familiar feeling, or venturing out to discover a new one. Or maybe it's just a yoga pose. But there's something in Moh Lhean, even with all its mysteries and all its differences, that's both ephemeral and distinctive, like something the Wolf Brothers might've heard on a praise album in their father's synagogue as kids, or on some '60s hippie LP they thrifted in their teens, or, perhaps, on the other side of the records they've been making their entire adult lives. Thus, it seems appropriate to conclude with some words sung on the very first song of WHY?'s sixth album, Moh Lhean: "One thing, there is no other. Only this, there is no other.... Just layers of this one thing.”