Over the past decade, genres have become increasingly divided. Imagine an immense, ever-growing pyramid, where every brick is a genre. Each brick supporting the two genres above it represents a merging of those genres. That pyramid is where the 2000s have left us: with smaller and smaller niches and sub-niches of genres being birthed, scenes fractured into sub-divisions as the pyramid carries on rising. Somewhere within that pyramid there is WHY? Wikipedia strives towards giving defining their sound – it goes for both hip hop and indie rock. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. When I interviewed Yoni Wolf last year, he said he'd thought for a long time about a good answer, before it came to him half asleep in bed – “sober psyche”. Their brick exists in the pyramid, its position and name unknown.
That uncategorisability is probably part of why they're part of DiS's Favourite 50, that they don't really fit anywhere (much like many on Anticon's roster), both musically and geographically. They hail from Oakland, hardly an indie hotspot, more known for its punks and its rappers. WHY? at least drew on the latter on Alopecia, Yoni's half spoken, half sung lines sharing a lineage, rather than an outlook, with rap.
Those words are another part of how WHY? make it into the Favourite 50. Too many times in writing this I have had to break off and mouth along with Yoni's lines – the play of words and the intricate rhymes spooling across my tongue, bringing smirks and jealousy with their elegance, even if the subject might be bleak / gloomy (and anyone who's heard WHY? will know it often is – witness “Your face turned red / When you said to me 'I'll suck the marrow out / And rape your hollow bones Yoni'”).
Often those words mean that Alopecia is closer to poetry set to music than music with words added – they are what drive WHY? This record was where the music managed to consistently match what was passing Wolf's vocal chords. More importantly, sense is never sacrificed for word rhythm. Tales of throwing up on your shoes, a dead body being lifted from a river, two men fucking in the “dark corner of basketball court / Just the slight jingle of pocket change pulsing” are all told vividly, images scorching themselves into your subconscious, lingering there to emerge when you do or don't want them.
And just like part of the appeal of a good comedy is to quote it to yourself (not to other people, never to other people, for that is wrong), so the appeal is with WHY? Lines you'd want to steal for some dark love letter to an ex - “Even though I haven't see you in years / Yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere”, or in the kiss off of “I'll see you when the sun sets east / Don't forget me” - Yoni barely puts a syllable out of place on his baritone drawl, while the music sounds grandiose – chains and bass rumbles open proceedings, before guitars, keys, drums, whistling, marimba, backing vocals, distortion all appear somewhere on the record. Look no further than the beauty of the marimba and piano striding of 'A Sky For Shooing Horses Under' for the measure of WHY?'s accomplishments on Alopecia.
The tempo is often a slow paced bounce, the spitter spatter of words making everything feel faster than it actually is, dragging the melodies along like a corpse tied to a fender. These songs wouldn't be near as good without Yoni's presence, even though they had come on plenty since the comparatively primitive Elephants Eyelash, layered up, more adventurous, more confident, more imaginative. Most importantly there's some kind of atmosphere to the piece that keeps it cohesive – it feels like smalltown America - pastoral, widescreen space, leafy and beautiful, but with darkness seething somewhere beneath the apple pie manners.
Alopecia was brilliant because it combined that atmosphere with poetical majesty and grand musicality. The first verse of 'By Torpedo or Crohn's' is probably as good as anything written this decade, so fade the piece out to these rhymes...
“Sleeping late I hear the sad horns of labour trucks sigh / My neighbour walks by / High heels click dry / Like half a proud horse down Brook / I hear somebody's babbling I mistook / For a cavalry whispering victory to the sparks in their kindling / But but all their green wood's wet and unmet as of yet by the gases of flame / Pressing against the pending physics of my passed down last name / Living in the tear between two spaces condemned / In one of the many places you're not I am / Hiding from my friends in the bathroom at Thrift Town / To write this tune down”