WHY? Alopecia

[anticon.; 2008]

Styles: a true amalgamation: let’s call it “hip-pop”
Others: cLOUDDEAD, Emperor X, Aqueduct, Fog

Picture it: a mass of energy is floating through space at an accelerated rate. The energy, when decoded by the complex circuitry of our ear canals, resembles something we recognize as musical notes. This energy, in a brilliant flash of nothing, seems to implode in on itself, wholly disappearing from the black void of space and time. It’s been sucked into the gravitational field of a black hole so immense that it dwarfs our very conception of enormity. This so-decoded musical energy is, seemingly, lost.

Oakland, California. The year is 2008. Note this. A crackle of electricity lights up the sky, and while the residents of the eighth-largest Californian metropolitan area fail to notice it, a wormhole opens up above their fair city for the slightest fraction of a millisecond, releasing the once-lost musical energy. At its constant rate of descent, the invisible mass quickly impacts the ground and spreads in a horizontal trajectory until the whole of the city is engulfed. From there, the fluent mass continues across the continent.

Sound far-fetched? Fine; you try explaining how a group like WHY? can exist in this rudimentary world.

Answering the question, nay, even making an attempt at answering “So, what do they sound like?” is deserving of a gold star. WHY? is a three-piece from Oakland, composed of beat- and word-smith Yoni Wolf, his brother Josiah, and Doug McDiarmid, joined on Alopecia by bassist Mark Erickson and Fog’s Andrew Broder. They're really less of a black hole and more of a modified vacuum cleaner. They suck up everything along with the dirt: experimental hip-hop, indie rock, sugar-loaded pop, minimalist balladry, etc. And then, once the components are all bundled together, they flip the switch and send it all tumbling back out again and into the recording studio. More plainly, WHY? is the alphabet soup of independent music. Clever, biting, creative, intense, storied, and lurid. There’s really nothing else like it.

Alopecia, their third full-length release and second as a full band, is a darkly tinged juggernaut. 2005’s supremely wonderful but admittedly melancholic Elephant Eyelash is downright cheery in relation. The songs of Alopecia find a renewed interest from Yoni Wolf in delivering straight-up beats and rhymes alongside his more sing-songy efforts. Unsurprisingly, his styles of old and new fit together like it ain’t no joke.

Wolf isn’t in a rush to spit out his verse in a song like “Good Friday,” instead letting the lazy beat lead him through some seriously down-and-out lyrical content. At the same time, it’s considerate that Wolf plays it so that we can get a few laughs from it alongside the cringes. “The Hollows” is a masterpiece, the band’s efforts fully coalescing into a totally monstrous sound that keeps building until it bursts. The sublime opening of “A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under” is a testament to WHY?’s tendency to include every type of sound imaginable and actually make it work. “Fatalist Palmistry” is the only track even approaching the bouncy demeanor of Elephant Eyelash, but with an opening tercet like “I sleep on my back/ ’Cause it’s good for the spine/ And coffin rehearsal,” you know where you’re at.

Alopecia is therapeutic for everyone involved. Wolf is bearing the darkest parts of his soul here. Sometimes they just sound so good that it’s easy to forget that. He’s asking big questions without answers, and when one gets stuck in a rut like that, well, the chances of coming out with a cheerier outlook are slim. But that’s where these songs come in. They’re a total release for Wolf, his band, and anyone who happens to listen and can’t help but be washed over in that wave of understanding. It’s not inaccurate to say that the album seriously considers mortality. Living and dying are weighed on equal scales for the first two-thirds, each seeming as peaceful and viable as the other. But there’s a dilemma in that. That black hole shows up again and Yoni Wolf stares into the very depths of it hoping to take some answer, any answer, away from it. It’s here that Alopecia finds its unified harmony.

Listening to his warbly plea in “Simeon’s Dilemma,” it’s clear Wolf has found what he was looking for. Maybe by the time the recurring refrain (“While I’m alive/ I’ll feel alive”) shows up again in “By Torpedo or Crohn’s,” even those slow to the draw will have picked up on the hints. Rest assured that it hits you in the chest like a mass of energy torpedoing through space and time: “WHY?” was a damn good question to ask.

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