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Why? - Alopecia

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Artist: Why?

Album: Alopecia

Label: Anticon

Review date: Mar. 7, 2008


Why? - "The Hollows" (Alopecia)


Why?'s brilliant last album, Elephant Eyelash, only offered hints of frontman Yoni Wolf's previous involvement with the hip hop / dream pop trio Clouddead. Instead, its shambolic, word-drunk and poignant indie rock sounded like what Pavement would have been if Stephen Malkmus had written hundreds of elaborate metaphors about lost love and suicide.

Now guitarist Matt Meldon is gone, and in his absence, the remaining three members of Why? (the name used to refer to Wolf alone, but now it refers to the band - confusing!) have Alopecia, which has a Clouddead quote in its first line ("I'm not a ladies man, I'm a land mine") and continues to sound like a lost Clouddead record much of the time. Alopecia has slow, rigid beats, dream-like lyrics, and layers of noise, all of which should be familiar to fans of Clouddead's Ten.

After that, my feelings about Alopecia are mixed up with my personal concern for Wolf's well-being; it's ironic that the album is named after a relatively trivial medical condition. Wolf sang about his own death quite a bit on Elephant Eyelash, but on Alopecia it comes up so frequently and almost self-parodically that the listener has to wonder if he's healthy. "Fatalist Palmistry," for example, is a perfectly catchy pop song that begins, ”I sleep on my back, 'cause it's good for the spine and... coffin rehearsal.”

Even when he's not singing about his own death, he's not very likable. On Elephant Eyelash, Wolf comes off as funny and thoughtful and sweet; on Alopecia he mostly just seems sick, and painfully self-absorbed. His few attempts to reach out come out all wrong: on "These Few Presidents," he tells an old friend that ”Even though I haven't seen you in years, yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere,” which is really a pretty bizarre and not-so-nice thing to say to someone, when you think about it. One song later, it's ”In Berlin I saw two men fuck in a dark corner of a basketball court / Just a slight jingle of pocket change pulsing.”

Even as I write this, I have a hard time deciding if this is all just gross and weird or if it's somehow intriguing. Listeners tend to assume that pop music is autobiographical, which causes all kinds of misunderstandings if it isn't. Several years ago, for example, Steve Albini had to defend Shellac's song "Prayer to God" by pointing out that we don't assume that someone who plays a gangster in a film is actually a gangster. It's probably not fair to assume Wolf is singing about himself, but it's hard not to.

And so I find myself a little bit put off by Alopecia, even though I'm drawn to it at the same time. The music is, for the most part, sleek and smart; it does contain flashes of the melodic indie rock the band played on Elephant Eyelash, but categorizing the rest of it isn't so easy. There's some hip hop, but of a very particular kind - when Wolf rhymes, he doesn't ride the beat ecstatically like, say, the MCs in the Wu-Tang Clan do. Instead, Wolf's chief concern as an MC seems to be precision, an obsession that spreads to the rest of the album’s production. The backing tracks are based around acoustic instruments - mostly drums and piano - but they sound inspired by the machine-generated loops of techno music. This approach puts Alopecia somewhere near Menomena's excellent Friend and Foe, where indie rock melodies and acoustic instruments fit into shapes that are usually designed for electronic music.

These aspects of Alopecia keep me listening. The lyrical approach has so far kept me from really warming to it, but the words are ugly and weird in an interesting way, which makes me think that maybe eventually a light will come on and it will become one of my favorites.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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