Sex and death take center stage on Yoni Wolf’s fourth full-length as WHY?, just as they have on his three preceding albums. Eskimo Snow, though, sees his usual themes filtered through hearty, homespun folk. What initially seems like a band drastically veering from the niche it carved out for itself, has actually been a gradual journey. Each release has seen Wolf’s sung-spoken rhymes and occasionally aggressive beats relax, steadily giving way to folk-like pacing and timbre.
The album was recorded while in the studio for last year’s acclaimed (albeit whacked-out) Alopecia; the material from the session was sorted through, keeping the lyrically crude for the former and the sad, sobering for Eskimo Snow. But just because it’s possible to pin it down to a single genre doesn’t mean the record is any less unusual. “These Hands” opens with slowly paced joint vocals by multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid and Wolf (he still sounds like the guy from They Might Be Giants, the really nasally one) against a militant bass drum. Less than 20 seconds in, there’s already a mention of Jesus and death. A whirling choir of gibberish eventually gives in to the twinkling “January Twenty Something,” with its power ballad chorus sung by all five members to contrast the rise and falls on “Against Me.” This isn’t exactly understated Americana, a point further illustrated in “Even the Good Wood Gone,” where Wolf explores fame and obscurity by imagining he’s a mummy in a museum. A pedal steel strains over his pleas of “No flash photography” before the song shifts gears, turning into what could be a glee-club production of Okalahoma!— This, coupled with the opening trio, makes for a one-two punch of WHY?’s remarkable talent to walk the line between being fringy eccentrics and a mere novelty act. Eskimo Snow’s second half follows a darker, more demented tone, but the record’s summed up early on: You never know what’s coming, but you can bet that it’s going to be good.