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 based studio, The Echo Lab. 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?


Cut The Body Loose
It may sound like hyperbole, but there is truly no one out else there quite like
Astronautalis. In addition to moonlighting as a travel writer, avid photographer,
and most assuredly being the first rapper to perform and have a
piece on display at the world famous Venice Biennale, this nomadic wordsmith
has been perfecting his own unique hybrid of hiphop,
indie rock and punk for
over a decade. C ut The Body Loose is Astronautalis' fifth fulllength
and also the
first album he's released since his Justin Vernon a.ka. Bon Iverfronted,
hybrid project Jason Feathers, who released their debut D e Oro last
year. While sonically different from Astronautalis' own music, he insists that in
many ways this album was inspired by the making of De Oro .
"The process of creating D e Oro with Justin Vernon and those other guys was
the most fun I ever had making an album and it really changed the way I thought
about making my own," Astronautalis explains. I n keeping with that new
approach, he decided to record C ut The Body Loose at Justin Vernon’s April
Base home/studio outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with his long time producer,
engineer, and musical collaborator, John Congleton (Modest Mouse, St Vincent,
Earl Sweatshirt).
"I realized early on in the writing process that I was creating my record about the
south that I grew up in, and around, and down the block from,” he explains, “a s
well as my Father's South, my Mother's South, and the South of the past, and the
South of future, and all the magic, and mysticism, and horror, and tragedy, and
weird, sweaty, fucked up beauty that entailed.”
No t only did Astronautalis take influence from the music that was ubiquitous to
his youth like Trick Daddy, Mystikal, Three 6 Mafia and the classic No Limits
Records roster, he drew further inspiration from every corner of the south's
musical past. He cites everything from the New Orleans trad jazz of Allen
Touissant and Professor Longhair, to the hill country blues of Mississippi Fred
McDowell, the night trips of Dr. John, and even the legendary college marching
bands during halftime at the Florida Classic.
And s omehow, Astronautalis manages to tie this "bipolar
southern insanity" t o
the dominant hiphop
hallmarks of today to create his own jagged, puzzlepiece
persona on this record. "Running Away From God" is about him attending a
wedding in New Orleans six months after Hurricane Katrina and admiring the
beauty of watching people s till find love, drink, dance, and celebrate in the
chaos. He had a similar experience when he played a show in Č adca, Slovakia,
a poor mining town where people, despite the bleak situation of a mine gone
bust, and a economy teetering on the edge of collapse, still managed to not only
survive, but to really live. "The overarching theme of this record is seeing people
in adverse conditions take matters into their own hands and still find the energy
to go dancing or fall in love or create art," he explains. "I've started to get really
frustrated with our complacency here in America and those feelings came out a
lot on this album."
Although this may be Astronautalis' most aggressive album, to call it angry, or
pessimistic, would be to miss the point. I t is, in fact, an album about liberation. In
a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral, there is a ritual of grief, that carries from
the wake, to the service, to procession of the pall bearers out of the church.
Each step of the way, the sorrow, and pain, escalates, soundtracked by the
music of suffering. Heavy, gutwrenching,
plodding dirges fill the air, as the
funeral service, and the casket itself, spill out of the church, and into the streets.
The mourners, and a full brass band follow along with the casket, as the pall
bearers, carry the departed to the cemetery gates. The music guides the pace of
the procession, while shaping the suffering of the mourners. And just when it
seems as if the pain is becoming too much to bear, the suffering insurmountable,
the casket reaches the cemetery gates, the band swings into the raucous
celebration of "When the Saints Go Marching In", and the mourners "cut the body
loose" as they leave the body to gravediggers, and they dance on down the
street. The time for sadness left in their dust.
The scene of the album is set early with the gritty, glitchy opener "Kurt Cobain"
which is as much a call to arms as it is an mission statement. C ut The Body
Loose exists in a space between heartache and acceptance, and that duality is
evident in songs like "You Know What It Is," which starts as a downbeat critique
of music and pop culture in general before exploding into a joyful, horndriven
celebration of life. Like life, there's plenty of inherent variety, which is why there's
room for ominous, ethereal bangers like "Kudzu" or the pianodriven,
ballad "Boiled Peanuts,” an ode to his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.
"I feel like I really fell in love with hiphop
again on this album," Astronautalis
explains. "That was territory I tackled here that I was really scared to go to
because I'm at the point where I could just write more songs about girls, but I
didn't really want to do that again and wanted to see what would come out if I
wrote from the heart."
As anyone whose seen him live knows, it's difficult to separate Astronautalis'
music from his raucous performances, which are less cerebral than than used to
be and currently favor a freeforall
full of freestyles and beats so infectious that
you can't help it but get lost in the kinetic energy of it all. "For the longest time my
inspiration for live shows were watching bands like Grandaddy or Bill Callahan
and now I'm way ore interested in watching The Knife or gangster rappers getting
totally nuts onstage," he explains. "To me that's way more exciting and it's also a
huge influence on this album in the sense that I want to write songs where I can
make everyone jump up and down and sweat and get whiskey dumped over
themselves to, you know?" In other words when Astronautalis commands the
audience to "turn it up 'til it shakes the rafters" on "Running Away From God," it's
not a metaphor, it's time to tear the fucking room apart.
On the surface, C ut The Body Loose centers around themes of loss,
disappointment, and struggle but in the end, it is really about finding redemption,
triumph and catharsis in the face of all of that sadness.
"The core of this album is the fact that the world is fucked in a lot of ways but
instead of letting that crush you, you can use those circumstances to make a
small change," Astronautalis says. "I'm not talking about recycling, I'm talking
about finding joy in being good and happiness inside the framework of what can
easily be a crushing amount of sadness you see in the world around you," he
continues, "and exercise those demons and find an outlet for all of those feelings
through my stories and experiences."
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