The combination of rap and rock can be dangerous. Turn-of-the-millennium bands like Limp Bizkit and Crazy Town are the warning label, displaying the sheer magnitude of musical devastation that can occur when the two elements are put in the wrong hands. Fortunately, Oakland Bay Area quartet Why? knows how to manage this mixture. The band will bring its mixture of harsh percussion, peculiar samples, resonating piano and acoustic instrumentation beneath the bitter crooning and staccato flow of vocalist Yoni Wolf to Pierpont Commons this Friday.
Why? started as an outlet for Yoni Wolf’s solo self-recordings. Growing up in Ohio, Yoni found a four-track recorder in his father’s synagogue. The four-track demanded that Wolf add more and more layers of samples while singing and rapping in a nasal voice. The rest is history. (In a interview with Wolf, he only confirmed that he got his start with a four-track from the synagogue where his father was a rabbi and described these initial efforts as “layer-by-layer” recording, but after listening to the products of this early experimentation, the embellishments seem plausible enough.)
This early approach of sound collage and raw vocals led to a split EP and eventually to Wolf’s 2003 full-length debut as Why?, Oaklandazulasylum, on the then-fresh Oakland-based hip-hop label Anticon. Some time after the release of Oaklandazulasylum, Why? expanded from Wolf’s solo experiments with layering to a full band’s experiments with layering. 2005 saw the results of this in the form of the Sanddollars EP and the second full-length Elephant Eyelash, which received widespread praise from critics and fans alike. Elephant Eyelash showed the band’s increased input of enthralling moments, like the multiple climaxes of “Waterfalls” – piano notes from separate airy melodies reverberate and tie into each other before quickly fading. They are supported by the rhythmic clanks of drumsticks on jars, the friction of paper on paper and the deep thuds of drums behind cutting-but-sentimental chants of “Your face never forgets a cry / Like trace remnants of acid in your spine.” Other standout tracks like “Yo Yo Bye Bye” play with more electronic soundscapes and beats to create a soft landing for Wolf’s delivery of lines like “I’m fucking cold like a DQ Blizzard.”
But on Why?’s weeks-old third LP Alopecia, the band achieves this same success in a slightly different way. The album features the band acting surprisingly more like a group. Wolf points to change in the recording style as the reason. “Elephant Eyelash we did as a band, but in a home recording setting, so one track at a time, in a very, sort of, meticulous layer-by-layer sort of fashion,” he said.
But Alopecia moved away from the style he had worked with since the beginning. “Alopecia we recorded pretty much live as a band in the studio. This is our first time recording in a studio with Why?” said Wolf. “It made everything sort of a lot more immediate. I think it gives it its own probably more organic quality.”
Alopecia maintains the samples and Why?’s knack for swelling piano and percussion throughout – most impressively on the catchy, slow jam “Simeon’s Dilemma” – but with more guitars and simple bass lines. Songs like “Fatalist Palmistry” and “Brook & Waxing” sound strangely like indie-rock. Without sacrificing energy or surprises, Alopecia shows that the current sound of Why? is thanks to four guys playing instruments, not fiddling with knobs. It’s an exciting template to apply Why?’s sound to, and one that should be able to thrive in front of a live audience.
Friday at 8 p.m.
At Pierpont Commons
$8 for students