Why? The Hollows EP (U.S.) / (EU)
[Anticon (U.S.) / Tomlab (EU); 2007]
Rating: 7.0 / 7.4
Yoni Wolf and his band Why? are outcasts from groups of outcasts. While Anticon is an apt fit for his verbal diarrhea, even Wolf's folk-leaning early work stood a few yards apart from the label's roster, and their recent work has even less to do with hip-hop than the highly experimental collective that launched records from the likes of Doseone and Odd Nosdam. This isn't necessarily a bad thing-- 2005's Elephant Eyelash further blurred genre lines, leaning on guitar and drums but within freewheeling near-collage-like compositions, and it gained the group its biggest audience to date. A subsequent opening slot for the Silver Jews' first honest-to-god tour delivered on expectations and found them wowing open-minded audiences with their performances and confounding search engines across the country ever since.
Now, Why? issue a pair of 12" records of remixes and covers-- one on Anticon and one on Tomlab-- in advance of their March 2008 album, Alopecia, featuring sometimes unlikely contributions from Boards of Canada, Xiu Xiu, Dntel, Half-Handed Cloud, and members of Yo La Tengo and Islands. Why?'s own contribution to this new EP-- you know, the single it's named for-- is even further from their already tenuous relationship to hip-hop. On the track, Wolf "sings" more, the track's ominous dirge-like beat sounds more rock than hip-hop, and its sudden lurches in tone and instrumental interjections feel that much more linear.
While "The Hollows" is an enticing enough peek at their upcoming full-length, what's more interesting is how much inspiration other artists find in Why?'s material. Not only are these grab-bag EPs consistent-- which should be a contradiction right there-- the songs contributed would fit well in each artists' own catalog. Two groups take a crack at "Yo Yo Bye Bye", from Elephant Eyelash. Xiu Xiu's attempt (from the Anticon EP) is a little too wordy to leave room for Jamie Stewart's dramatic vocals, but he sounds comfortable with the rapid verbiage while the gentle electronic soundscape feels warmer, and has a pulse that races quicker, than much of his band's recent, more contemplative work.
On the Tomlab version, Dump (aka James McNew of Yo La Tengo) offers a version of "Yo Yo Bye Bye" that sounds as intimate as any of his home-recorded projects, and features much of the same reverberating fuzz bass and drum machines, but with a patience and a bump in recording fidelity that make it far less claustrophobic. It's also far less fragmented than the original, which turns out to suit the evocative lyrics just fine.
On the Anticon EP, Half-Handed Cloud are the black sheep, attempting a drums, piano, and voice medley of Why? songs called "Pree-Teen Apocalyptic Film Acting" which is expectedly precious, your enjoyment of which may depend on your tolerance for the band itself and the sound of a musician's ambitions skipping merrily outside the bounds of their ability.
To further twist bullyish tension burns on the arms of fans, The Hollows EPs feature two remixes of tracks from the upcoming Alopecia. Dntel's Anticon EP track returns to his cuddly headphone-techno roots with its insistent, espionage-evoking beat. Wolf's steadier, typical hip-hop delivery makes what could be an MOR move for both into a mind meld instead. But Boards of Canada, with the understated but insistent loping beat they add to "Good Friday", make you wonder why they're not working with more rappers. They bring a newfound clarity and movement to Wolf's words, and even though he's working a deadpan monotone, BoC manage to add several different textures without ever stepping on his toes. Though they've remixed the Anticon roster before, it's a tantalizing step outside of BoC's comfort zone, and an amazingly sensitive collaboration, over which Wolf leabes some provocative call-outs and males plain-faced admittance of the therapeutic value of his lyrics ("shit I wouldn't even admit to my head-shrinker"). The slinky beat and restrained horns make for a track that sounds sun-kissed and debauched all at once.
Joining BoC and Dump on the Tomlab release, Nick T of Islands might throw the biggest curveball on either EP with a cover of Wolf's side-project Reaching Quiet's "Broken Crow". Dour and weightless, it's a sluggish classical piano and drum dirge that ends with an sharply incongruous keyboard tone (not so far from Boards of Canada), hinting at depths his band has yet to plumb. One single and two remixes is a bit of a tease for those waiting on the release of Alopecia in a few months, though each of these singles handily stands apart on their own. -Jason Crock, November 27, 2007