By Scott Reid | 4 November 2003
It was a marriage of experimental excess waiting to happen. Fog (aka Andrew Broder) and Why? (aka Jonathon “Yoni” Wolf), both respectable underground talents—Andrew as a singer/songwriter/turntablist/producer and Why? as an MC with cLOUDDEAD—recorded most of this album in the span of about two weeks, later completing another three songs that fill out the album, as per request of Lex label head Tom Brown. Though the latter sessions would result in the best of what the album has to offer (“21st Century Pop Song” & “You Die,” for instance) too much of the original sessions were based around throwing out their collaborative ideas without giving much room for the music to actually evolve. This, I suppose, was to be the point of Hymie’s Basement: compare some ideas, improvise a majority of the material and then let the immediacy of the process take over and give an exhilarating charge to the otherwise underdeveloped songs. A concept that, like most albums sharing its mindset, is certainly more interesting than the product itself.
“21st Century Pop Song,” one of the three tracks recorded half a year after the initial sessions, opens the album with great promise. It’s one of the albums most interesting efforts by far, both in terms of production ideas and its stream-of-consciousness lyrical content. The two personalities making up the combo are instantly recognizable: Fog’s truncated production and Why?’s barely penetrable poetry (“In a lab under flag right now someone’s splitting atoms and inventing new breakfast cereals in the shape of their nation’s borders”).
Likewise, “All Them Boys,” impressively the first track they created together, continues with the slightly awkward harmonizing and pastiche production aesthetic, pulling together an array of ideas that should, by all rights, fall flat on its face. After this, the album departs into its main core, a vastly different creature than what the preceding tracks might lead you to excitedly believe as indicative of Hymie’s Basement as a whole. “Suite of the Fearless Tall Dude Killers” acts as a bridge between these two parts, but like “I Am a Sewer at Heat,” is an ultimately forgettable instrumental.
“The Act,” on the other hand, is a great track; the subtle transitions and build of the song are flawless, and its sparse piano ending adds an absolutely haunting atmosphere that continues in “Moonhead” and the highlights “American Won”/”American Too” (“Masturbate your birthday party/ If you’re lonely, get a lobotomy”). “Parrots” drudges along with annoying vocal treatment and a static production that coasts through the song’s three minutes (only one of which is even necessary to get the song’s point across, though like “The Pump,” it could’ve easily been cut from the record) and “Pretty Colors (Smile Your Brains Out)” spends over four minutes spitting out its pulsing monosyllabic vocals (“Dear/ God/ Please/ Give/ Me/ The/ Strength/ To/ Just/ Totally/ Fuck/ My/ Brains/ Out”), playing like a extrapolated version of The Books’ “A Dead Fish Learns the Power of Observation” that render Why?’s intriguing background vocals and a number of its great lines (“The innocence in children’s laughter can be confused with evil”) a complete waste.
The Oaklandazulasylum out-take feel of “Ben + Joey” picks things up again, its strong hook and memorable lyrics (“Hitchhikers stay hitchhikers by turning down rides”) manage to accomplish more in its brief minute of existence than “Lightning Bolts + Man Hands” is able to in six. The real heart of the second half, however, is undeniably the album’s closer, “You Die.” Andrew’s mark is all over this one, from the trademark beat to its beautiful synth-driven melody and his brief vocals; “You die, you become laughter/You die, you become sound” he sings before Why?’s broken “I owe you America/ I owe you the world” leads the song to its stirring conclusion.
The real problem with this record, like with Fog’s Ether Teeth and Why?’s Oaklandazulasylum (both also released this year), is the inability to use the momentum of its several great ideas to produce an effective whole. The main appeal of vaguely similar records—Fog or cLOUDDEAD’s eponymous records, for example—is their ability to mesh together large amount of great ideas like a novel consisting entirely of succinct and loaded snippets of hundreds of completed works, filtering out the meandering bullshit and cutting straight to the point. Whereas both of these artists have been involved with projects that have had an instinctual grasp of this momentous build, it’s confusing that they’d release an album so willing to throw out a mass of ideas for us to wade through and then keep on our shelves, collecting dust as we continually reach for their other, and far more accomplished, projects.