WHY? – Eskimo Snow (2009)

Why? - Eskimo Snow Why? are not your typical hip-hop ensemble; their lyrics deal openly with loneliness, isolation and self-doubt (instead of grandstanding about their own magnificence), and Yoni Wolf delivers them with an airy quiver that’s somewhere between John Darnielle and Craig Finn; their lush, organic instrumentation eschews the club-ready production that’s become so indicative of the genre, and (last but not least) they currently reside on Anticon. Of course, even taking all this into consideration, their latest album, Eskimo Snow (recorded around the same time as last year’s excellent Alopecia) is still quite a bit of a departure for the band. But it also may very well be their greatest triumph.

Upon first listen, it’s hard to find anything hip-hop on Eskimo Snow, even though Yoni still spins some seriously deft wordplay around every other bend (I particularly love the following verse from On Rose Walk, Insomniac: “crossing states/on a spade opossum/with custom plates/and the paint rusting/like cussing saints/with strange customs…”). It’s the kind of passage you want to read aloud to people, just to hear the beauty of the sibilance as it drifts through the air. Musically, the band make great use of some really animated Phillip Glass-type melodies, which ascend and descend like discreet major-key revelations.

These melodies avoid becoming a one-dimensional gimmick by way of Yoni Wolf altering between treating the songs as closed-off confessionals and silver screen monologues; when he intones that he wishes he could feel “close to somebody, but I don’t feel nothing…” amidst the percussive flurry of his bandmates, he’s swinging for the fences. I’d love to hear his Oscar acceptance speech. But when the songs are more low-key and distant, Yoni belies them with a surprising amount of depth (as in the final verse of These Hands: “these hands/are my father’s hands, but smaller/soaked in paint thinner/until they’re so dry coming together/they make the sound of resisting each other…”). Imagery like that is becoming rarer and rarer in modern music (especially hip-hop), primarily because few people want to work on such a small scale. After all, why lament when you can laud?

Of course, the most remarkable thing about Eskimo Snow is how naturally the band arrived at it. You can practically trace the evolution from a song like Gemini (The Birthday Song), to Fatalist Palmistry (from Alopecia) over to a song like This Blackest Purse. Maybe that’s a source of power for the album – that it fools us into thinking that this was Why? the whole time, even if the Sanddollars EP says different.

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