With so many bands recycling their predecessors' sounds and ideas, it’s always refreshing when a group claims a sound that can’t quite be classified. Over the course of their career, the members of Oakland-based Why? have achieved this ineffable feat: stumping critics and fans alike over just what their fractured tone is and what musical direction they will end up taking.
In the past, the innovative instrumentalists in the metaphor-spinning collective have consistently stuck to a repertoire that is half hip-hop and half reflective melody. But the very thing that Why? was “discovered” for has seemed to slip away with each release. In fact, on the much-anticipated Eskimo Snow, most if not all of vocalist Yoni Wolf's hip-hop capabilities have run dry. And because Why?’s music is so distinct, its lyrics so touching, its quirky song-structure so unconventional, it is twice as obvious when the members shift their focus from one tone to the next.
So what do we do with this? By boiling their work down to pretty melodies and sing-song vocals, has Why? taken a brash step in an oddly conventional direction? If we must debate Eskimo Snow's quality, we can only acknowledge that its critiques have everything to do with taste. Some will think Wolf's vocals are as groundbreaking as his hip-hop beats, and that Why? has released another successful record. Others will have trouble breaking away from what they liked best about the band in the first place.
Either way, it's clear that Eskimo Snow has far less vocal punch than Why?’s previous efforts. Never once does Wolf’s voice revert to a hip hop rhythm; instead, he chooses to rely only on his wry, nasal vocals. But it turns out that by singing his way through the album, Wolf has created the sort of record that begs to be listened to all the way through, to be absorbed and understood. Each track on the record speaks to the last and looks forward to the next.
More important is that despite the change in the vocal approach, the band hasn't lost its ability to write poignant, relevant lyrics and pepper them in all of the right places. “Looted of gold, if there ever was some/ And even the good wood gone/ Remaining fingers curled around the memory of a rod/ Left not even with my death mask on/ Heart and other organs missing for so long/ Features faded and dated in estimation.” Never mind Why?’s shift into “normality.” It is this quality, Why?’s ability to write so prolifically, that holds Eskimo Snow together. It keeps us looking forward to what the collective will present us with next, even if the quality of Yoni Wolf's vocals are up for debate.
"This record is really the least hip-hop out of anything I've ever been involved with." That quote from Yoni Wolf about the follow-up to Why?'s Alopecia gave some fans of the art-rap act reason to pause. Such uneasiness is unwarranted though. Alopecia was also more rock-oriented and was the Anticon. crew's best. During the Alopecia sessions, Wolf and Co. recorded more songs, ten of which compromise Eskimo Snow. Though both albums were recorded during the February 2007 Minneapolis sessions, the Eskimo tracks avoid the segmented recording of Alopecia, for a more "resigned" and "open" sound. Wolf also noted that Eskimo Snow is a "bit more wild, and the drums have more room mics."