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Why?

Eskimo Snow

(Anticon; US: 22 Sep 2009; UK: 22 Sep 2009)

Anticon continues its run of superb 2009 releases with Eskimo Snow, Why?‘s follow-up to last year’s Alopecia. Recorded at the same time as that well-received album, Eskimo Snow is the stronger set and a significant step forward for the band. Although Alopecia frequently impressed with its clever, at times audacious sonic and lyrical approaches, it also reflected an excess of cunning that kept the album a bit too distant from the listener. Eskimo Snow, on the other hand, opens up in a looser, more confident manner that packs a great deal of emotional and philosophical weight into 35 minutes of … Americana? Country and Western? Is this the same band?


To say that Eskimo Snow is a departure from Why?‘s already unrestrained brand of hip-hop assumes a certain generic starting point that simply doesn’t live here anymore. The best reference point for the album is probably Beck’s Mutations, another scene-stealing collection of songs that was marketed as an “unofficial” follow-up to a hugely successful—but ultimately less personal—release (Odelay). Mutations, produced by Nigel Godrich, sounds to this day like Beck at his most human and knowable, and Why? rides a very similar wavelength here, touched by the hand of both Eli Crews and (tellingly) Lambchop’s Mark Nevers, who pre-mixed the album.


The folksy feeling of these songs is no gimmick, and every player in the band rises to the challenge of the genre sway without missing a beat. “These Hands” instantly establishes two of the album’s most successful recurring qualities—harmony vocals and impeccably recorded percussion. On “January Twenty Something”, a pulsing vibraphone-rich introduction that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sufjan Stevens song, gives way to a rousing half-time chorus. “Against Me” provides a sort of lyrical upgrade to the many songs from Alopecia that mused kinkily about the corporeal fixations of lyricist/singer Yoni Wolf. Although some of that awkwardly confessional material remains intact, “Against Me”, like several others on Eskimo Snow, links Wolf’s bodily fears to larger historical and spiritual continuums: “Out of every woman on earth, who will I mate with? / Or will I spit empty threats, until all that’s left, is a million zeros printed on a roll of ticker-tape? / And one last echo of the final tiny wave in my wake?”


“Even the Good Wood Gone” is both clever and affecting as Wolf assumes the perspective of a lonely “pharaoh… in a shoddy school museum collection”. The remembrance of the figure’s long-lost possessions merges with the singer’s consideration of his belongings’ comparative worth and his own body’s inevitable decay. That mundane-made-poignant subject matter is met with layers of creative impulses, from Clouds Taste Metallic crescendos to Mothersbaughian baroque picking and the loaded phrase “no flash photography”. On paper, it makes little sense, but the execution is pop perfection. Despite such sweeping departures, some elements of the band’s traditional sound occasionally appear. For example, most of “Into the Shadows of My Embrace” consciously recalls the “moth caught in the soap dish laminated in lye” section of “Gemini (Birthday Song)” from Elephant Eyelash. Also, “One Rose” makes direct reference to Alopecia‘s “A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under”.


“One Rose” is one of many songs here that wrestles with the processes of creation, as nature and procreation clearly consume a lot of the singer’s thoughts. The easy melody of “Berkeley By Hearseback” threatens to mask the ancient questions at its center, but attentive (and literate) listeners will likely enjoy pondering the line Wolf traces from “the Maccabees to Mom to Me” to “Someone’s Father’s Father, left listed in the Book of Numbers”. Fittingly, the entire second half of the album bears a successive design, with song titles begetting each other through repeated words and/or rhyming syllables:  “One Rose” to “On Rose…” and “…Hearse…” to “…Purse”. Finally, the heightened emotions of “This Blackest Purse” are functionally climactic, but the questions the song asks aren’t met with resolution. Instead, the conclusion of Eskimo Snow, cemented by the falling action of the title track, is a universal collection of earnest hopes—that parents might approve, that prayers might be heard, and that truth might be known.

Rating:

Associate Professor of Film and Video Studies at George Mason University.


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