A year and a half after releasing the acclaimed Alopecia LP, WHY? returns with their fourth album, Eskimo Snow (out Sept. 22, 2009). The two records are each other’s perfect foil: While last year’s release found Yoni Wolf and the gang delivering a tight set of intricate rhymes, live loops, slurred hooks and acerbic wit, Eskimo Snow offers a sung, sobering take on mortality that unfurls in lush waves of Americana and pop-infused psych-folk. Pre-mixed in Nashville by Lambchop’s Mark Nevers (Silver Jews, Bonnie Prince Billy, Calexico) and worked over by Alopecia engineer Eli Crews, this album is WHY?’s most live-sounding yet – a shadowy and sprawling piece as intimate in subject matter as it is handsome in timbre.
WHY? actually recorded Eskimo Snow at the same time as Alopecia, at Minneapolis’ Third Ear studio, with Fog’s Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson rounding out a live quintet. The vision for two separate albums emerged on a snowed-in night after a hot toddy or two. If Alopecia, however inexplicably, maintains a summery tone, then Eskimo Snow captures the bite and resignation associated with the Midwestern winters that these Cincinnati boys grew up with.
“These Hands” opens the album up rich and with deliberate pacing, Doug matching Yoni word-for-word (you’ll find no vocal overdubs here) and the rhythm section operating under heavy reverb. Vibraphone likewise duets with piano, windy wordless vocals fly around the atmosphere, and wet footsteps soon carry us to “January Twenty Something.” Here, you’re in the room with WHY?, listening to the bass rattle the drums and the drums rattle the vibes. Amid this folksy grandness, the whole crew sings for the chorus, bending their harmony into a gorgeously warped drawl. Next, “Against Me” brings the album’s brightest moment yet: a crescendo of bells that eventually dips into an aural whirlpool while Yoni spins picturesque observations like a countrified Dylan.
Across Eskimo Snow, Yoni weighs his ability to create a legacy against life’s transience. On the luxe, pedal-steel-drenched “Even The Good Wood Gone,” he transposes himself with a mummy in a museum, begging, “No flash photography,” drawing a line from the dubious promise of fame to the brittleness of antiquity. For “Into The Shadows Of My Embrace,” he explores sex and decay while the track vacillates between a live wall-of-sound and spare church organ passages. “One Rose” is gentler, sporting a Western stride and dark piano hits whose echoing blackness mimics Yoni’s wistful poems. Toward the song’s end, the chorus of Alopecia’s “A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under” makes a stormy reprise.
Most impressively, this record presents a band uninhibited, but evermore accomplished at imbuing sound with mood. “On Rose Walk, Insomniac” rolls forth on a tempestuous din, Josiah drumming hard through the chorus, where Yoni’s voice sounds like its running through a Leslie speaker. “Berkeley By Hearseback” comes in so soft, the guitar tones feel like waves of grain next to the splashy cymbals and that Jim James-worthy cowboy croon ricocheting through the background. “This Blackest Purse” weaves a melancholy that shirks dourness for a curious smile. And when the titular song brings the album to a hushed close, Eskimo Snow’s place in the narrative becomes clear. Rather than spit at death or threaten it with suicide, Yoni stops bucking against the inevitable. In the process, the band discovers a rich place that the rest of us can happily live within.
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