WHY? Eskimo Snow

[anticon.; 2009]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: indie rock, Americana, 90s alternative
Others: Smog, Aesop Rock, Islands

Eskimo Snow, though allegedly culled from the same sessions as Alopecia, shares little with WHY?’s last album. Some lyrics and musical motifs reappear here, but in a fully renewed form. Alopecia was a refinement of WHY?'s sound, less indie-rap and more, well, something. The hip-hop derivative rhythms and cadences remained, but other than a few shorter songs, there was nothing overtly rap about the album. While hewing closer to traditional indie rock, Alopecia moved effortlessly, fearlessly from mood to mood, genre to genre, oftentimes within a single song. Whatever disparate elements were contained, WHY? reconciled the stylistic differences and — for the first time in their career — made music that felt organic, complete. On Eskimo Snow, WHY? eschew the rap affectations altogether, working instead within a bizzaro-Americana milieu, the Dystopian boom-bap replaced with dulcimers and strummed guitars.

The stylistic shift is jarring at first; much of what made the band so appealing is absent here. Eskimo Snow resembles Bill Callahan more than it does Aesop Rock. It wouldn't be unconscionable for older fans to balk at the changes and then perhaps slowly warm (if at all) to this new incarnation. But through these changes, WHY? emphasize the qualities that made them so appealing in the first place.

Although no longer a solo project, Yoni Wolf is and always has been front and center. For better or worse, the success of WHY?'s music depends largely on his delirious, unhinged wordplay. His voice, nasal pubescent in pitch, is a deal maker or breaker. Central as his adenoidal vocals might be within their music, WHY? are defined as much by Yoni's lyrical obsessions. His same fixations remain present here: religious identity, bikes, balding, masturbation, and death. A tangible sense of mortality pervades the album, even more so than on older records. Yoni explores these neuroses with his usual mordant wit. Both lyrics and delivery are hysterical; Wolf exaggerates certain syllables, whining like a moody teenager while making blunt statements about the sad nature of his existence. Peppering his philosophical musings with mock-profundities, he displays a self-awareness that transforms his inner torment into dark humor. But as suffocating as all this self-absorption can be, Yoni never lets his ego stand in the way of a good dick joke. It's a distinctly Jewish approach to mortal contemplation, one that owes more to Woody Allen or Philip Roth than to any musical forebearer. This semitic tradition helps tether Eskimo Snow — regardless of stylistic departure — to the rest of WHY?'s discography.

No matter how perceptive the lyrics or sharp the wit, if the songs were in any way lacking, Eskimo Snow would amount to little more than musical onanism. But WHY? have outdone themselves, crafting an album that contrasts the intimacy of the emotions with the immediacy of the songs. Their older albums were far more reticent than this, balancing the anthemic numbers, like “Gemini (Birthday Song)” or “Fatalist Psalmisty,” with more atmospheric compositions. Eskimo Snow, on the other hand, wastes no time on loops of hissing tape or hushed-spoken interludes; all 10 songs are overflowing with indelible melodies. And opposed to the older, pastiched style, Eskimo Snow feels like the product of a real, live rock ’n’ roll band. The album feels so overwhelmingly organic that the visibly digital touches, such as the vocal distortion on “On Rose Walk, Insomniac,” feel a little out of place. Though, none of the few aesthetic mismatches are egregious enough to spoil the tone — nor enjoyment — of Eskimo Snow.

“Into The Shadows Of My Embrace,” Eskimo Snow's centerpiece, is a prime example of the band's compositional strength: it starts off sounding almost like a Neil Diamond-ish pop song, before doubling its pace and shifting into a relatively contemporary form. Halfway through, the percussion falls away and the song slips into surf rock-tinged balladry. Yoni, in this middle section, worries about his indiscreet masturbatory habits, before defending in earnest his tendency to overshare: "I know saying all this in public should make me feel funny/ But you gotta yell something out you'd never tell nobody." At that, the band redoubles its pace before building to a massive guitar freakout. It's a cathartic moment, one earned as much by the band as by Yoni himself.

It's hard to fathom what sort of music lover would fail to be moved by Eskimo Snow. From the backing, almost doo-woppish coos on “These Hands,” to the countrified harmonies of “Even The Good Wood Gone,” to the tender piano balladry of “This Blackest Purse,” there are many details, both obvious and subdued, to hold attentions. In the past, WHY? would obscure their own virtues, burying musical virtuosity underneath layers of irony; here, they offer themselves no such defenses. Eskimo Snow is WHY?'s first big rock moment, with every song belted out to the rafters. Sacrificing none of their self-effacement in their pursuit of a more emotionally direct style, WHY? have stumbled upon something uniquely personal yet utterly commercial. Through exploration of his mortality, Yoni seems to finally be accepting of his place in this world. Eskimo Snow is the embodiment of this self-acceptance; "And I'm still here/ Barely understanding what truth that rarely calls" Yoni sings in the album's final moments. A sad statement, yes, but following 40 minutes of music that is so totally alive, it feels more like a sigh of relief, a confirmation that, despite life's tragedies, we're still breathing, feeling, and masturbating.

1. These Hands
2. January Twenty Something
3. Against Me
4. Even The Good Wood Gone
5. Into The Shadows of My Embrace
6. One Rose
7. On Rose Walk, Insomniac
8. Berkeley By Hearseback
9. This Blackest Purse
10. Eskimo Snow

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