Why? were once just Yoni Wolf, rapper at large. Now, Why? are a full-fledged band; Wolf is their singer/songwriter.
Wolf began as an MC with Oakland art consortium/hiphop record label anticon, an intentionally not capitalized thing that—famously or infamously—invented highfalutin white-guy strEMO-consciousness rap. It launched careers for Slug (Atmosphere), Sole (beefed with/lost to El-P), Sage Francis (hella vegan), and doseone (Subtle, once defeated Eminem at Scribble Jam's freestyle battle): self-hating guys who lyrically psychoanalyze themselves and their romantic partners, perform political spoken word, and self-publish poetry books.
But that's not really where Why? are at these days. Since 2005's Elephant Eyelash, Why? have been an indie-rock band, and recent long-player Alopecia (still on anticon) announces them as a great one.
As a lyricist and frontman, Wolf outgrows his record label's reputation for unintelligible art-rap gibberish. Every word on Alopecia is understandable and entertaining. Pointedly, Why? aren't going over anybody's head.
And Wolf is not a rapper. He's like a rapper. Rappers make it rain, but in "These Few Presidents," he says Washington, Lincoln, and Hamilton are "frowning in [his] pocket." He speaks words on Alopecia, and all of them are syncopated, but most of the record is sung, taking vocal cues from Apples in Stereo or Pavement. It's progressive pop, but the sheer volume of words, phonic tricks, and humorous turns of phrase—money referred to as "presidents"—is pure hiphop.
Wolf and company—brother Josiah Wolf, Andrew Broder, Mark Erickson, and Doug McDiarmid (Erickson and Broder don't tour; bass/guitar man Austin Brown does)—keep alive anticon's spirit of experimental lo-fi production and no-boundaries lyrics, but inject it with a much-needed shot of surprisingly confident pop songwriting.
Alopecia's best songs, such as "Brook & Waxing," "The Hollows," "Fatalist Palmistry," have traditional pop structures, memorable verses, and melodic, well-crafted choruses.
For the devastating breakdown on otherwise cute "These Few Presidents," the bass register of a Casio keyboard rattles with bowel-shaking force, sounding like a bowed cello run through a Marshall stack, while various fidelities of background percussion clap to complement the dark swoop.
It's to Wolf's credit that it's initially hard to decide whether Alopecia's words or melodies are more impressive: He wrote them both sitting at his piano. The words win out, barely.
Why? deliver perfect pop for the modern age, throwing fat pitches and nasty curveballs. Of the hundred or so lyrical gems on Alopecia, one of the most arresting is on "The Hollows": "In Berlin I saw/two men fuck/in a dark corner of a basketball court/just a slight jingle of pocket change pulsing."
It's delivered in nasal deadpan over straightforward, palm-muted electric-guitar eighth notes with decidedly pop phrasing.
"The idea is that you're far away and you see something through binoculars... and then all of a sudden you're there in his pocket, as close as you can be to the action. Sort of a macro/micro thing," he says, on the road from Chicago to Milwaukee.
A lot of Wolf's lyrics play tricks of perspective. On "These Few Presidents," he rattles off a laundry list of details, full of interior rhyme, about a long-ago tryst with a departed (deceased?) lover, a "Chinese bird in a fading ancient painting." A recurrent Alopecia theme—odes to precious things in dangerous situations—crops up when Wolf guesses, "If you're in heaven waiting/you made it there fighting/the tightest kite string/in a bad storm with lightning." The song's close examination and poetic conjecture about its subject are pretty and engaging, but idiosyncratic and wordy, as much a story about Wolf's way of thinking as the situation he's thinking about. It's not until he zooms out to a broad illustrative example and the band goes quiet that Wolf gets straightforward, and the song becomes a universal heartbreaker, a message of devotion to something beautiful and precarious: "Even though I haven't seen you in years/yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere."
Alopecia's poetry is also made distinct by Wolf's knack for conjuring distinct place/time pockets. Detailing an obsessive relationship in "Simeon's Dilemma," he humorously threatens: "Don't pretend/you didn't see me coming around the bend/on my fixie with the chopped points turned in/trailing behind your biodiesel Benz."
The illustration is funny—Wolf loves a zinger—but the semisweet punch lines about a "fixie" (a single-speed, fixed-gear bike mostly ridden by slender urban hipsters) and a "biodiesel Benz" (environmentally conscious and cool at the same time) also report on the everyday present.
"A biodiesel Benz is the same as a fixie to me," Wolf laughs, pointing out that, yeah, biodiesel is the right idea, but back-patting yuppies restoring Mercedes-Benzes from the '70s is just funny to him.
These are images—like ones from Alopecia vignettes set in Whole Foods and thrift-store bathrooms—that have yet to work their way into popular song, and their use here gives Why? the heft of some new emergent Americana. Even though Alopecia talks a lot about death and love, it's not too lofty to stick its nose in the corners of common experience.
"It's what we're living in right now. I think that makes [the songs] more real," he says. He likes that a lot of rap music is so timely and topical; he enjoys hearing Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest rapping about his Timberland boots, "because that's what everyone was wearing in '92, '93."
He laughs again and wonders if people will listen to Why? in the future and ask each other, "Hey, remember Whole Foods?"