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Why? - Elephant Eyelash

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Artist: Why?

Album: Elephant Eyelash

Label: Anticon

Review date: Aug. 22, 2005

The name Why? once referred to Anticon collective and Clouddead member Yoni Wolf, who released a string of rough-and-ready records that mixed elements of hip-hop and indie rock. Why?’s earlier output was fun – Wolf jumped among genres like the older, lo-fi Beck, but with less obvious irony and less of a folk influence. But those records weren’t as fun as they could have been, because Wolf often tried to wring too much out of too few ideas, because his arrangements were a bit thin, and because he had one of the tiniest, weakest voices in the history of hip-hop.

The name Why? now refers to an entire Bay Area rock band, fronted by Wolf and including guitarist Matt Meldon, multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid, and drummer Josiah Wolf (Yoni’s brother). For whatever reason - perhaps the new lineup has something to do with it - Elephant Eyelash is fantastic, an indie rock record that nicely balances absurdity and directness, pop hooks with stoned weirdness.

Yoni Wolf’s hip-hop roots (if indeed Clouddead counts as hip-hop) are mostly buried here – even the half-spoken rhymes on “Crushed Bones” and “Gemini (Birthday Song)” are accompanied by guitar arpeggios. Wolf sings melodies much of the time (in a stronger voice than before, although he’s still no Sinatra), and the songs are mostly shaped like pop rather than hip hop, with verses and choruses taking similar amounts of time.

The result is indie rock that’s quirky and seemingly casual in a way that makes the catchy parts (and there are many) seem catchier, a little like Pavement in their prime. The instrumental part on “Gemini” is similar to Pavement’s “Range Life,” in fact. Unlike Pavement, though, Why? gets a lot of mileage from samples and effects that augment their rock-band base. But the production doesn’t feel digital at all, so the instruments and electronic touches both sound grainy, much like they do on Radiohead’s OK Computer.

Lyrically, Wolf remains as word-drunk as his hip-hop background suggests. Many of the lyrics here are guided by phonetics and imagery rather than by a narrative, and they’re often pleasantly whimsical sounding. Occasionally, though, Wolf sings something more pointed to suggest that what’s going on isn’t a Pavement- or Fiery Furnaces-style exercise in words for their own sake. “Yo Yo Bye Bye” seems to be addressed to a risk-taking lover with whom the narrator has a strained relationship: “We love and hate like the tattooed fists... We have to change if we’re gonna stay together / ‘Cause I say rain when it’s only a drizzle / You get stoned like death in the Bible.”

Then, on “Act Five,” Wolf mourns for deceased relatives: “All the people who taught me card tricks are dying.” The album ends with “Light Graves,” which contains the most elaborate of Elephant Eyelash’s many references to suicide. The fun the band clearly had when making the record, along with Wolf's tendency to surround his more direct lyrics with odder bits of prose, make the album lighthearted at times. But its most lucid moments hint at some overriding anxiety.

Pavement, Radiohead, Fiery Furnaces - these names aren’t as sacred to me as they are to some indie rock fans, but I’m still invoking them for a reason. “Gemini,” “Sanddollars” and “Yo Yo Bye Bye” are likely the three catchiest indie rock songs I’ve heard this year, and there are so many surprising twists in the melodies, time signatures, lyrics and production that I'll keep returning to these songs for months. Elephant Eyelash is a terrific rock record, especially for a guy who's known as an MC.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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