Review: WHY? – Mumps, etc.
Published on October 16th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
WHY? Because, that’s why! Because Yoni Wolf and co.’s fourth album Mumps, etc. is pretty darn ace, taking WHY?’s gleefully lapped-up-thus-far melange of indie-folk and hip-hop, and re-inflating it with hearty puffs of soul, sleek nocturnal grooves and a cartoonish, lightly psychedelic air of mischief.
“Jonathan’s Hope” sees Wolf announce himself with his reedy flow over oddly staggered, utterly ridiculous and instantly winning hip-hop full of crinkly synaesthetic percussion and psychedelic hummed backing vocals; a laid-back address about having the mumps is punctuated with gleefully unexpected “woo woo woo!”s, and Mumps, etc. is off to a fine start indeed.
Anthemic single “Strawberries” is like “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” reproduced as a twinkly skank, and a lovely one at that; faintly odd lines like “itching like an intern with the sunburn” are sweetly sung in a way that’s more heartfelt than its lazy melodies initially suggest, the notion of a facade strengthened by the chorus refrain of “I am not okay, boys”. Meanwhile, “Your mom she sits while her hair is in curlers / Smokes weed and listens to that Garrison Keillor / That’s how I’ll live when I quit my rap career / Let her laughter pass the rafters and go out into the atmosphere” melds WHY?’s humour and world-weariness to splendidly microcosmic effect, delivered with such forthright singalongability that a sure-fire festival favourite is born. It’s wearily resigned, bitter-sweet, fun, gently surreal and even confessional (“The shit I said to high school counselors haunts me”); Wolf’s nasal voice is bound to grate with some, but it only fuels the fragility that keeps this typically smart collection grounded enough for mass resonance.
“Waterlines” begins with harps then reveals the wrong-foot by slipping slyly into icy cool hip-hop with lyrics about ageing and depression, causing it by its end to feel a lot more sorrowful than the initial ice-cool slip-in suggests; and the fact that that’s the second use in as many paragraphs of a “more…than initially suggests” construction just goes to evidence the conflicting dimensions uncorked by the music of WHY?. Wolf’s lyrics, as ever, are superb…
“With the liars view under my skirt up. Dude,
You wanna peruse the tattoos you heard word of?
Any excuse I can use to move my shirt off.
Girls used the fawn over my locks to kill.
Now the girls are gone and I’m on minoxidil.
I’m in decline but women like be jocking still
Cause I rhyme with skill and talk so chill and youthful.
Bird dog in the mating yard to be truthful.
Quake 89 trading cards with me tubes
So three white felt gloves are crucial.
Yes the one left one right one neutral.”
…seriously, rhyming “locks to kill” with “minoxidil”? Gold star!
“Way High on Highway” is not just a punner’s delight of a title, but also a slow-skanking, harp-stroked platform for some surprising and impressive vocal trilling (or whatever the correct term is) on Wolf’s part, not to mention further rueful reflections on his own departure from youth (“I am obliterated / Get close and be frustrated / I am obliterated by the end of the night”). “Sod in the Seed”, the title track of the LP-preceding EP, is an irrisistible quick-step shuffle that speaks of “shitting black blood at six” and “pissing fears and hopes through the ears of folks listening”, while the cello-assisted gentle groove of “Distance” showcases a lovely slight dissonance to its dual-harmonised vocal part, a way with beauty which feels almost inappropriate on “Kevin’s Cancer” but remains affecting nevertheless.
Wolf’s restrained melodicising brings to mind Stephen Malkmus on “Thirst”, “Bitter Thoughts” pitches divine female harmonies and a flute-y chorus as wonderful counterpoints to such downcast verse raps as “Keep your producer guessing / When you’re in the booth confessing / And say it was mostly fiction / If they ever come to get you”, and “Paper Hearts” is commanding stuff indeed, especially when the sublime staccato strings stir things up then make way for a heavenly breakdown that is quite possibly the closest WHY? has come so far to sounding like The Beach Boys.
Under-two-minute closer “As A Card” makes for a quietly stunning end to the album, strikingly ornate, and baroque hip-hop that it is; within its emotionless rapped delivery, Wolf underlines themes explored on Mumps, etc. – and to an extent on past WHY? releases – with “As time drags on and I thin and whiten and my beard grows long / I might look like Walt Whitman / All sunken-eyed and dry and without pigment / But I wanna be spry as a newborn kitten” and the repeated-for-emphasis “I’ll hold my own death as a card in the deck / To be played when there are no other cards left”. Artistic death would on this evidence appear to be some way off for this bunch, although any follow-up LP would surely have to mine lyrical ground other than that harvested with such aplomb on Mumps, etc..
WHY? Well, why not?
Rocksucker says: Four Quails out of Five!
Mumps, etc. is out now on City Slang. For more information, please visit www.whywithaquestionmark.com