Eyebrows raised when Why? were chosen to support the Silver Jews on a 2005 tour, but that seemingly incongruous bill made more sense when considering one of Berman's better lines: "All my favorite singers couldn't sing." Likewise on Alopecia, Yoni Wolf doesn't seem to know he isn't a diva on "Simeon's Dilemma", that he isn't a New Pornographer on "Fatalist Palmistry", or that he's not a grizzled battle-rapper on "The Fall of Mr. Fifths", and he won't let any of it get in his way. He's got too much to say to be concerned about it.
"Unclassifiable" is usually lazy shorthand for albums featuring both guitars and keyboards. Alopecia is a liquid in the sieve of genre: put it on headphones and it begs to bump; recite lyrics aloud and people will look at you with loathing usually reserved for religious leaflet canvassers and slam poets; try and decode the words in your head and you'll only hear the melodies behind them. As for his lyrics, it's wrong to call them stream-of-consciousness, since that implies Wolf is a poor self-editor; nothing about Alopecia is lazy. It's more like 5 a.m. journal entries cut up and turned to collage. Clearly, every line won't be pure gold, but they all add up to something.
Alopecia opens with the chain-gang lurch of "The Vowels Pt. 2", its slow claps and big, watery bass hits rubbing against Wolf's most insistent rap/sing delivery, and the unlikely hook of "Cheery-ay, Cheery-ee..." somehow becoming the record's most ingratiating. Funnily, the first two lines ("I'm not a ladies man, I'm a landmine, filming my own fake death...") reveal most of the record's preoccupation. No matter what he's on about on Alopecia-- although most of the time, he's pretty easy to follow, especially compared to his Anticon brethren-- sex and death are never far from Wolf's mind. The former is pretty evident on "Good Friday", a crisper revisiting of the acoustic plucking-plus-beats of Why?'s earlier work, and an uncomfortable litany of perversions Wolf "wouldn't admit to his head-shrinker" that includes forgetting Elton John lyrics in karaoke. Wolf's voice is (putting it delicately) distinctive, but his monotone murmur here is just one example of his ability to change up his delivery.
Not that he needs to-- while Wolf fearlessly splays open his head for all to see its contents, the band is the real star (the core of Yoni, brother Josiah Wolf, Doug McDiarmid, and here fleshed out by Fog's Andrew Broder and bassist Mark Erickson). They're what make "The Hollows" work as both tentative and propulsive guitar-rock under Wolf's paranoia, and make "Palmistry" cheerful and memorable pop under the sobriety of his lyrics. "These Few Presidents" is stiff indie rock, with drum-machines and the polite blurt of an organ, until the bottom drops out and cascades of clattering percussion and yawning low frequencies soundtrack the most sincere Hallmark card ever: "Even though I haven't seen you in years, yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere."
"Mr. Fifths" returns to bouncy, rap-minded delivery, with tongue-twisting lines about syphilis and the sound of high heels on marble. But they've got some nerve here, making us wait until the record's last third for its best songs: "A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under" is some strange, sublime triangulation of Steve Reich, deadpan rap swagger, and blustery multi-tracked choruses you could link to Alice in Chains. But trainspotting is beside the point-- the band creates a musical landscape so vivid that every cryptic line doesn't seem inscrutable, but more like puzzles worth unlocking.
The stalker's serenade, "Simeon's Dilemma", is creepy, sure, but then Wolf busts out the falsetto like he's a supporting character in a boy band getting his big solo moment-- you can almost hear him pointing at notes on the invisible scale with his hand. Then there's the disorienting and dreamy behind-the-beat thump of "By Torpedo or Crohn's", featuring what I guess you might expect from underground white-guy rap: cryptic lyrics about throwing up behind Whole Foods, the admission that as a kid he "didn't shit his pants much," and hoping for health food in hell. It's contrasts with the rest of Alopecia, but even as a portrait of a medium existence, it's still a complicated one, and its most lasting impression after the lulling sing-song of the chorus is pervasive anxiety. It's weird to think that 2008 could be a year of reaffirmation for Anticon, but along with Subtle, they just won't adhere to the boxes we've tried to stuff them into.
If there's anything that drags down Alopecia, it's that "Fatalist Palmistry" is the only real sigh of relief on a very sober record (and even that song begins and ends on thoughts of death). Even as it charted a difficult breakup, 2005's Elephant Eyelash had a few more moments of relative sunshine. Here, Wolf's exhaustively catalogued his sins and imperfections as on "Good Friday", and even the stalker in "Simeon's Dilemma" has no release or acknowledgment to look forward to; he braces for the fall, and prepares to "deny, deny, deny." Wolf seems doomed to feel too much here-- to take in everything, and take it all very, very seriously. -Jason Crock, March 11, 2008
Anticon in Austin this week / weekend:
Anticon and Tomlab SXSW Showcase @ Lambert's: (401 W 2nd Street)
01:00 Hey Willpower
11:00 Thee Oh Sees
10:00 Son Lux
09:00 No Kids
WHY? and Son Lux will also be playing at various day parties:
WHY? - Force Field PR & Terrorbird Media SXSW Day Party @ Emo's (4:30pm)
WHY? - Brooklyn Vegan Party @ Emo's Annex (2:30pm)
Son Lux - Soundcheck/Spiderhouse Presents @ Spiderhouse (7pm)
WHY? - Soundcheck Magazine's 2nd Birthday Party presented by Dewar's @Emo's Annex (5:30pm)
Son Lux - Okay Mountain Presents Asthmatic Kitty and Friends @ Okay Mountain Gallery (4pm)