Sometime in the early oughts, I was doing what I often did back then: dig through bargain bins for music. I pulled Why?’s debut album, Oaklandazulasylum, out of a bin at a chain store. It was only 49 cents, and it looked weird, and I was weird, so I picked it up. The album art was pretty, but it had a dead person on it, maybe? No matter, It’s an album that’s followed me since. Its oddness was just for fun at first, then eventually it was revelatory. It’s an outsider album no doubt, but those little images Yoni Wolf conjured on that album floated around my mind back then. To this day, the opening of “Early Whitney” evokes some sunken yet pleasant autumnal feelings. There was some depth in the deep then.
Why? has changed beyond recognition since, not to say that’s necessarily bad. Yoni Wolf grabbed his brother and a rotating few and made it a real band. Mostly, they fashioned Why? into an odd little indie rock band with a bent towards weird rap verses. They still had good tunes, but they were more streamlined, more conventional. Why?’s new album, Aokohio, while not as all over the place as Oaklandazulasylum, cuts closer to that debut album than to any of their last five records. There are very few ‘songs’ present and even some of those end well before you’re ready. Wolf has stopped making boxes and started playing with clay again.
There are two ways to experience Aokohio. First, listen as one usually would, either song by song or as an album, front to back. There is some pleasures in doing so. Opener “Apogee” pops up from the top with a blissful chorus. Later, songs like “Reason (Featuring Lala Lala)”, “Stained Glass Slipper”, and “Rock Candy” are standard Why? fare: Acidic lyrics backed by warped instrumentation. Otherwise, though, the audio-only experience is a little off-putting. Many of the songs here are in the ether, just being used as a connector between larger, more complex pieces. A song like “The Rash” is a song only because it’s officially categorized as one. Basically, Aokohio, is not so powerful if you only listen.
Fortunately, the record can also be experienced as a ‘visual album’. Here slighter songs like “The Rash”, “The Launch”, and “Narcissistic Lamentation” have a little more to offer, as the video reacts and enhances the songs, whether it be just a neat visual trick using computers, or else home videos showing the Wolf kids playing around the house. There are small pieces where the sampled voices line up with the people on screen. We discover that many of these ‘short songs’ are placed behind visuals to help set up the mood of the pieces, and it makes so much more sense now that we can see it.
The album’s creation process has been described as coming from a need for something new. Yoni Wolf felt stuck, felt like a ‘regular’ album wasn’t going to cut it this time. So, he took a different approach, tried something new. Wolf imposed some restrictions and added something new as well. Ironically though, it’s reminiscent of where he came from as well, a little more shapeless and a lot more inspired.