Why? – Eskimo Snow

There’s a lot contained below the surface of Eskimo Snow and what’s underneath is not entirely an uplifting affair. The album, which was released in late September on Anticon Records, is almost completely devoid of the hip-hop sheen that glossed both Elephant Eyelash and Alopecia and what is left settles with much more heft and weight. Much of the humorous subtext is gone as well, though the wordplay left behind is no less clever. The album gives off the air of a defeated narrator, be it Yoni himself or the character he’s woven into the band’s three albums, someone who has laid down his arms in light of the arriving war. The first two albums settled a mixture of reaction to the world around him with wry commentary, Elephant Eyelash brimming with a bit more uptempo sadness followed by Alopecia’s growing frustration. Put in context, the core of Eskimo Snow, in both lyrics and music is something more introspective

I had the pleasure of interviewing Yoni back in early 2006 just before one of their opening shows for The Silver Jews at Chicago’s Double Door. The read I got off him then was a sincere one, as he was a genuinely kind and grounded guy who spoke with as much sincerity off the stage as he did in his lyrics. Between then and now, one has to assume that as you progress as a person of interest in the public eye, there is a divergence between the self you present in your art and the self you live. Over the course of the last two albums, it’s safe to guess that more of a ‘narrative interpretation of Yoni’ has crept into the lyrics. The process of exposing yourself through your art, especially to the extreme that he does can create two representations of one’s self. Even with those ideas are taken into account, Alopecia and Eskimo Snow were born of the same recording sessions, so to say that there’s an evolution over time could be a less than true guess.

Character analysis aside, when you take away the hip-hop sway and gloss humor, what’s left at the core is a dense affair. The same themes of morality, self image, and mortality run through the core of this record. The songs stand strong individually despite the brief length of some, like the hypnotic album opener These Hands. This pairs a rising coo of discordant backup vocals with Yoni’s comparison of his own life’s progress to his father’s. The deep reverb on his voice paired with the lonely piano chords makes for something that creeps under the skin and at under two minutes is gone before you really recognize what is going on.

Why? – These Hands

Another highlight rests with Into The Shadows Of My Embrace, which leans on a swirl of keyboards and xylophone as it marches toward an almost melodramatic musical and lyrical peak where he sings about the extreme of his confessional nature. The kind of straight pop style that he uses in songs like this and Alopecia’s Simeon’s Dilemma and Brook & Waxing were a shift in style that I had to really wrap my head around, but the way they’re executed it grows on you.

Why? – Into the Shadows of My Embrace

With the tour supporting this album, there was a pretty interesting shift in the band’s setup. My last show in Portland was them with the charmingly enigmatic Phil Elverum, this time doing what could best be described as epic Anacortes sludge metal. Why?’s live setup for this tour featured Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson of Fog, so that the full band that participated in the Eskimo Snow and Alopecia recording sessions was present. Earlier tours, they’d shift up the arrangement and subtract elements to perform the songs live, but the full roster of folks on stage allowed for a pretty fair recreation of the album’s sound, down to the barely there backup vocals on Against Me which I always chalked up to reverb. Usually, Yoni would have a setup of a snare drum and a keyboard hooked up to a few effects pedals, but now he was able to function more as a lead man, free to move around the stage untethered. Overall, the show was the most solid and confidant I’ve seen them yet, a reflection on the changes musically and lyrically on the album.

Ultimately, Eskimo Snow chopped up snippets of someone’s life, very much not my own, but the emotion behind it all rings true with me. The feeling of frustration and exhaustion, that I feel a lot of people are suffering through as the world lets loose what could only be described as a massive economic sigh. The emotional pull of the album is more important than the specifics of musical influences or which track hides the cleverest lyric, as Eskimo Snow yields a rewarding listen weather you take the stories as truth or fragments of Mr. Wolf’s own mythos.

Eskimo Snow was released by Anticon Records on September 22nd 2009

To Charm By Confusing – Fog

Ditherer is by far one of the more challenging albums I’ve encountered this year. There are far more outwardly bizarre records that have been and will be released this year, but Fog has slipped us something of a wolf in pop music’s clothing. Contained in the expanse of Ditherer are songs that feel somewhat normal, but are propelled by some psychotic veneer. As an album, it shifts gears compulsively; blindly slipping between the twitchy clatter of Inflatable Ape to the lazy mourning of What’s Up Freaks.

I initially struggled with this album, constantly wanting to write it off for a short attention span and a jarring lyrical sense of humor. Little spastic touches like the deranged rising scale riff in the middle of I Have Been Wronged give light to the type of semi-charming psychosis that the album exhibits. The learning curve, even for one who’s got an ear for this kind of skewed outlook, is a little tough. I found myself charmed by one song at a time, listening to that track alone in the mindset that I’d never crack the riddle of the other 10 tracks. Slowly, a new song would catch my ear and I’d decode the foreign melody.

Albums, like this, that come clear over time, after a challenge of repeated listen are ultimately rewarding ones.

Check out these live sets from University of Minnesota’s Radio K which features both a six song set of Andrew Broder solo as well as a three song set with the full band.

Also an Onion AV Club interview with the trio from late 2007.

Fog – Your Beef Is Mine