Why? – Eskimo Snow
By Ben Allen
“This record is really the least hip-hop out of anything I’ve ever been involved with.” So says lead vocalist/songwriter Yoni Wolf, about his band Why’s latest release Eskimo Snow.
Starting with 2005’s Elephant Eyelash, Why? has been gradually transitioning from post-rap into a full-fledged indie-art-rock folk group.
Surprisingly, this album was recorded at the same time as last year’s Alopecia during an intensely creative period in the winter of 2007. As the writing and recording progressed, the band realized they had two separate, distinct albums. “This seems like the next step from ‘Alopecia’ in some kind of thought-life of the character,” Wolf says.
Upon first listen, you’d be hard pressed to find a track as infectious as Alopecia’s “Fatalist Palmistry” or Elephant Eyelash‘s “Gemini (Birthday Song)”. This material has, for the most part, a more subdued, almost introverted feeling.
First single “The Blackest Purse,” is a swelling, passionate piano ballad that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Ben Folds record. The song peaks with the chorus, “Should our hero’s hands be holding this blackest purse? Mom, am I failing or worse?”
“Into the Shadows of My Embrace” is both the standout track and a milestone in Why?’s musical evolution. “I conquered my own childhood silence and now the world is my lit confessional marquee,” Wolf sings over a 60’s teen-bop groove. From there, it picks up momentum, gently chugging along until it reaches an apex. “I wish I could feel close to somebody, but I don’t feel nothing. Now they say I need to quit doing all this random fffff. . .” stopping himself short before dropping the eff bomb. The song closes with over a minute of the band beating a riff into submission while letting their guitars get noisy and weird.
Increased confidence and musicianship are evident throughout. The songs at times sound full, bordering on orchestral (the last half of “On Rose Walk, Insomniac”), but more often are appropriately stripped down and intimate (title track and album opener “These Hands”). Often the lone Wolf’s howl (pun intended) is accompanied by only a piano or a delicately plucked guitar.
The overal vibe is one of dark despair, highlighted by the fact that Wolf’s surreal lyrical approach is mostly lacking his trademark sense of ironic humor. He’s still willing to make candid confessions most would reserve only for their best friend or therapist. “Now I think my upstairs neighbor hears me masturbating,” he says on “Into the Shadows of My Embrace.” But he’s also depressed. On the title track, he compares the way Eskimos have many different words for snow to “all of my words for sadness.” Sniff.
Some of the appeal to longtime fans has always been trying to decipher Wolf’s cryptic lyrical content, and here there’s still some content that appears to no more than free association weirdness. Take “sex can make you younger and older at the same time,” or “it’d take a busload of high school soccer girls to wash these hospitals off me.”
While not necessarily a definitive career statement, Eskimo Snow serves as a testament to a band still finding itself, exploring the possibilities of what will be. Ultimately, it seems like an acknowledgement of the gap between the supreme brilliance of Alopecia and wherever Why? is heading next.
The last track finds Wolf repeating the line, “. . .and I’m still here.”
Be glad he is. – (7/10)