WHY? — AOKOHIO (Aug. 30, 2019) Location: Berkeley, California / Cincinnati, Ohio
Formed: Oakland, CA
Album release: Aug. 30, 2019
Record Label: Joyful Noise
I: I may come out a broken yolk, I may come out on saddle.
01. Apogee 1:45
02. The Rash 0:45
03. Peel Free 4:44
II: I’ve been carving my elbows, I might just take flight.
04. Reason 1:40
05. Deleterio Motilis 1:52
06. Stained Glass Slipper 2:24
III: Please take me home, I don’t belong here.
07. The Launch 1:08
08. High Dive 1:25
09. Mr. Fifths’ Plea 0:46
10. Good Fire 1:22
IV: The surgeon nervously goes on, he never claimed to be God.
11. Narcissistic Lamentation 0:42
12. Krevin’ 1:33
13. The Crippled Physician (feat. Lala Lala, Gia Margaret) 2:55
14. Ustekinumab 0:31
V: I want to live with conviction, in silence and diction.
15. My Original 0:31
16. Rock Candy 2:19
17. Once Shy 1:08
VI: Though I’m tired, I’m still trying.
18. The Shame 0:36
19. Bloom Wither Bloom (for Mom) (feat. Christian Lee Hutson, Gabby’s World) 4:10
by Mehan Jayasuriya, AUGUST 7 2019; Score: 5.4
:: Yoni Wolf and his band switch up their approach with bite~sized songs, a visual album, and an uncharacteristic focus on the past.
:: For all of the neuroses he’s examined on record over the years, Yoni Wolf has never seemed like one for nostalgia. During his two decades spent fronting cLOUDDEAD, Hymie’s Basement, and WHY?, Wolf could usually be found either over~analyzing the present moment or lost in some dark, near~future reverie. It’s surprising, then, that following a creative dry spell and a relocation to his native Cincinnati, Wolf has turned to his past for inspiration. The album art for AOKOHIO draws from home movies Wolf made with his older brother (and WHY? member) Josiah Wolf, and its lyrics make frequent mention of their family and early life. Given the younger Wolf’s Freudian fixations and how incisive he can be when voicing his internal monologue, you’d think all this rooting around in his childhood would turn up something interesting. And yet, the verbose rapper and singer has never sounded like he’s had less to say.
:: AOKOHIO, it turns out, is the product of creative malaise. “I wasn't feeling the idea of going back in and making another ten or twelve song album. It felt arduous,” Wolf said. “So I wanted to pare the process down and make it manageable.” Hence, an album with 19 songs spread across 33 minutes and six “movements,” each of which is being released independently and as part of this collection. Only five of these songs break the two~minute mark; the rest sound like fragments, field recordings, or some combination thereof (WHY? records have always included tracks like these, though they’ve usually served as bumpers). There’s also an accompanying visual album, made in partnership with — no joke — a director who randomly DM’d Wolf on Instagram. If all of this sounds like an effort to jump~start a stalled engine, it wouldn’t be the first time. But as with 2013’s fan~service exercise Golden Tickets, it feels like Wolf never commits to his own conceit — nearly all of the songs on AOKOHIO feel underdeveloped, if not unfinished.
:: Album opener “Apogee” is in many ways a typical WHY? song: Over gentle washes of guitar and piano and a dance beat, Wolf fires off a series of curious observations in a resigned sigh (“Standing in the mirror thinking, ‘I wish I was a chocolatier’/Fat but happy at the apogee of life”). But just as the song begins to hit its stride, it’s over. “Peel Free” attempts to locate the source of Wolf’s angst at the time of his birth, but amid the horns, chimes, and weighty piano chords, he comes up empty~handed (“I’ve been shaking off a shadow all my life,” he shrugs on the chorus, backed by a choir). On the surface, “Deleterio Motilis” sounds like it could have been left off of the band’s high~water mark Alopecia; it even opens with a signature Wolf move, a self~deprecating reflection on his treatment of women. But unlike WHY?’s best work, everything feels half~hearted, the punchlines and uncomfortable confessions lacking their usual bite.
:: Originally Yoni Wolf’s solo rap project, WHY? has been a bona fide indie rock band for close to 15 years now, one that’s more than capable of making elegant and affecting music. But even these talents go to waste on AOKOHIO. “Rock Candy” overplays the band’s signature glockenspiels, and the result sounds like a cat~food commercial. With its horns, choir vocals, and stargazing melodies, album closer “Bloom Wither Bloom (for Mom)” overshoots poignancy and lands in schmaltz. WHY? has never been a subtle band, but they’ve also never been this overwrought.
:: About halfway through the album, we hear a bit of something promising in “Mr. Fifths’ Plea.” It has all the hallmarks of a fan favorite: twinkling instrumentation, a title that references one of the band’s best~loved songs, a catchy chorus that doubles as a plea (“Someone would you save me from myself?/Someone would you help me be a healthy human being?”). And yet, we never really get to hear it. The song plays faintly underneath a recording of Wolf and his brother conversing with a taxi driver and cuts off at the 45~second mark. This attempt at self~sabotage might sound interesting on paper. But in practice, it’s emblematic of a larger trend in Wolf’s songwriting over the last decade: lots of experiments, few results.
:: Yoni Wolf has spent the last two decades traveling the remote sonic terrain where underground hip hop, avant~pop, and psych~rock meet. Some of Yoni’s most compelling and critically~praised musical experiments have been issued under the moniker WHY? and his latest entry is no exception. On AOKOHIO Yoni condenses the essential elements of WHY? into a stunningly potent musical vision.
:: Co~produced by Yoni and his brother Josiah, AOKOHIO presents a rich palette of musical voices that emerge and disappear into a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of sound. “I wanted a wide variety of sounds. I didn’t want this album to sit in one sonic zone. I’ve always felt like too jagged of a person to be smooth in that way,” Yoni says. While the album features many notable guest contributors, from Lala Lala’s Lillie West, to Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso, the listener’s attention remains squarely directed on Yoni’s voice and vision.
:: AOKOHIO finds Yoni rethinking fundamental aspects of his approach to creating and delivering his music. The album is presented as six movements comprised of two to four songs each, with some segments appearing as brief fragments that dissolve within seconds.
:: “When I started this project, I decided I needed to try a new approach in creating music and how I work,” Yoni reflects. “I wasn’t feeling the idea of going back in and making another ten or twelve song album. It felt arduous. It felt like too much. So I wanted to pare the process down and make it manageable. I thought, ‘Why don’t I make small five or six minute movements and finish up each movement before I move on to the next.’ That’s how I started approaching it. The whole process took over five years, I’d start working on something and set it aside for awhile. The earliest songs on this album started in 2013.“
:: As Yoni reimagined his approach to creating music, he also began thinking of new ways to share the music with his audience. “I initially wanted to release the music as I progressed through the project,” Yoni says. “When I finished a movement I wanted to put it up digitally on Bandcamp or Soundcloud. I just wanted to make little pieces of music and put them out there. But I had a call with my manager and the label and they said, ‘We can release stuff through time like that, but we want to do it properly.’ So the idea of the project changed after that, but it retained the integrity of working in movements. It’s definitely a very different way of working for me. I think it has yielded some interesting results.”
:: The concept of sharing AOKOHIO in segments over time has been preserved with the release of an accompanying visual album. “I think it’s a very artful way of putting the music out there,” Yoni explains. “It’s like a television series, it’s revealing itself slowly over time. I think it’s cool that the audience gets to hear it one piece at a time, and has to wait and digest each piece before they get the next one.”
:: “I knew early on that I wanted that visual element for this album,” Yoni recalls. “My brother and I have worked on video stuff our whole lives. Our dad had video equipment since we were little kids, he had an editing suite in our basement. We weren’t rich, we were actually fairly poor, but somehow he’d gotten ahold of these video editing decks and cameras. Even though my brother and I had dabbled in video as kids, it’s not what we do for a living. So we wanted to find someone, and fucking randomly a guy messaged me on Instagram and was like, ‘Hey, I like your music and I’d love to work with you.’ I looked at his work and I was like, ‘This guy is for real!’“
:: The author of that fateful Instagram message was Sundance award~winning director Miles Joris~Peyrafitte. “Miles directed the first three segments of the visual album and is the mastermind of the overarching video project,” Yoni explains. Joris~Peyrafitte’s visuals cut contemporary footage of Yoni and actress Tatiana Maslany with vintage home videos documenting Yoni’s childhood life in Cincinnati. It’s a fitting juxtaposition, as Yoni’s lyrics on AOKOHIO seem to question how memory, history, and place shape our anxieties and sense of self. “I moved back to Cincinnati after living in the Bay Area for over a decade,” Yoni says. “This album is very much me thinking about my mom and dad, and my siblings.”
:: Yoni’s return to his Ohio hometown brought on a period of critical self~reflection. “Is there a word for bad nostalgia?” Yoni asks. “When I think of the word nostalgia, it seems like pleasant feelings and all that, but this is not really like that. It’s more about reflecting on the anxieties I’ve had since I was born. Why are they there? Is this epigenetics? Is that shit just inside of me because of the Holocaust and my relatives back then? What am I really? Why do I operate in these ways?”
:: Ultimately AOKOHIO sees Yoni pushing to find meaning and peace of mind in the moment, even if it’s not exactly where he wants to be. “The title is sarcastic I guess,” Yoni offers. “But it’s also wishful. A lot of my album titles have been names of maladies, like Alopecia and Mumps, Etc. I don’t want to project that into the world. You know, ‘A~OK Ohio, I’m here and it’s fine.’ It’s like a mantra, ‘A~OK Ohio, I’m here and it’s OK.’ Even though in reality, everyday I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of Ohio.’“
:: AOKOHIO feels like a consequential addition to the WHY? catalog, possibly even an artistic turning point. But its creator remains circumspect when asked to comment on the album’s significance within his discography, instead preferring to characterize the work as the latest iteration of his deep commitment to his artistic practice. “I have no idea if this record is good or not,” Yoni says. “But I never really know. I know that I’ve never written a song that’s indispensable to the American songbook. But in terms of what it is, it’s a piece of art. I put blood, sweat, and tears into this album, and struggled through the creative process as I always do. As far as where this sits with the rest of my albums? I can’t answer that. I just know that my career is a lifelong career, and I’m working it. Every time it feels right, it makes me feel good.”
:: Founded in 1998, the Los Angeles based Anticon collective has become one of the most curiously individual of 21st century groupings. Taking the wordiest and nerdiest tendencies of hip hop — notably the slam poetry~informed tongue~twisting of fellow Californians like Freestyle Fellowship and Blackalicious — and the wordiest and nerdiest tendencies of electronically enhanced psychedelic indie as their starting points, they built a world of introspection and frazzled wordplay that they still inhabit to this day via several dozen collaborative and individual projects.
:: Why? was originally the stage name of Anticon co~founder Yoni Wolf, but since 2004 WHY? has been his band. This is their sixth album as such, and it is Anticon to the core. The first track is called “Apogee”, within the first 60 seconds (of 90) has mentioned a 19th century president, used the word “chocolatier” and run the gamut of half a dozen intensely conflicting emotions while delivering infernally addictive hooks. Its 19 tracks are written as six “movements”, with accompanying experimental films, dammit. If you’re averse to the smartarse or collegiate, you may have alarm bells ringing by this point, but seriously, it’s not like that.
:: The thing about Anticon has always been that there’s a delight in sound, dynamics and the feel of words that comes before all conceptualism, and that’s as much the case here as ever. This album was apparently five years in the making and it feels it — but in a good way: for all that the lyrics and sonics are dense, it’s the opposite of overwrought. Rather it sounds like concrete subjects such as Wolf’s intensely religious childhood or his Crohn’s Disease, as well as abstracted, learned ideas, have been folded over and over into the dough of these songs, testing and tasting until they become perfectly blended with more immediate concerns and the sounds of Syd Barrett and Beck, De La Soul and Devo, into complex but coherent flavours. As with almost everything from the Anticon stable, you have to make the commitment to step into this world to appreciate it, but when you do it feels like a privilege to have been invited.
WHY? — AOKOHIO (Aug. 30, 2019) Location: Berkeley, California / Cincinnati, Ohio