Why? so serious?

Social norms and musical tropes are shunned on the excellent Alopecia
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  September 10, 2008
indie_why_091208_cJacobHand.jpg
REALLY, WHY NOT? The band (and friends from Fog).

The lines between avant-garde hip-hop, pop, and indie rock continue to blur with defiance on Alopecia, the third album by the Anticon trio Why?. Like their intrepid labelmates in Subtle, Yoni Wolf and his band write songs that are beat- and guitar-driven, motormouthed and pensive, hooky and fearlessly idiosyncratic. The clichés used to describe them have evolved in kind — post-hip-hop, or emo- or backpack-rap — but they’re becoming less apt by the year.

In Wolf’s hands, we get the sense that this is by design. His cultural references — “[blowing] chunks all over my new shoes/In a lot behind Whole Foods,” riding a souped-up fixed-gear bike, seeing a girl at a Silver Jews show — upend hip-hop tradition, but they’re also too self-conscious to elicit a cheer from Why?’s hipster fanbase, or anyone really. Ditto his subject matter, most of which consists of vividly articulated talk about death, sex, and adolescent embarrassments. We’re left to dub this outcast music, but even that label doesn’t quite fit: Despite its sometimes relentless perversion and morbidity, Alopecia is too inventive and catchy to marginalize.

The chain-rattles and slow handclaps of “The Vowels Pt. 2” create the lurch of a death march, but its reverbed guitars are positively sun-soaked. Wolf runs through a catalog of lonely proclamations (“Faking suicide for applause in the food courts of malls,” “Am I an example of a calculated birth/to a star chart for clowns?”) and hits on a strangely wistful chorus of “Cheerey-a, cheere-e, cheere-i, cheery-o, cheery-u.” His delivery is nasally, but too animated to come off as whiny. First single “The Hollows” matches the slinky swagger of mid-’90s Dr. Dre production with jagged post-punk rhythms and comeback bravado (“This goes out to all my underdone, other-tongued, long, long frontmen”).

On a few tracks, Wolf employs a mundane grumble that’s more polarizing. “Good Friday” starts off with one of the album’s most best and most representative sequences (“If you grew up with white boys that only look at black and Puerto Rican porno/’Cos they want something that their dad don’t got/Then you know where you’re at”), but Wolf only gets more graphic, intent on alienating the listener in the name of emotional honesty, which could be digestible if the beat weren’t also such a dirge. (“Gnashville” suffers similarly.) Later, “By Torpedos or Chron’s,” with the aforementioned Whole Foods reference, is similarly indulgent but more aware of it. The string-and-keys-laden wordless chorus is both quirky and kind of heartrending.

Still interesting even in the rare moments where it’s hard to like, Alopecia is startlingly consistent, the rare rap(pish) album that gets better as it goes along. Much of the credit goes to the rest of the band, guitarist Doug McDiarmid and drummer Josiah Wolf (Yoni’s brother), along with guests Mark Erickson and Andrew Broder (of the compelling indie band Fog). Their dexterity, from the straightforward indie-pop (complete with tambourine) of album highlight “Fatalist Palmistry” to the industrial drumming and experimental noise flourishes of “The Fall of Mr. Fifths,” actualizes Yoni’s scattered, unique worldview.

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