Elephant Eyelash

(Anticon; 2005)

By David Greenwald | 24 January 2008

Oh, irony. Take Filter Magazine. Their choice of nom de plume is fitting not because it’s a corporate machine attempting to pass for legitimate music criticism – a consumer filter, if you will – but because music itself is a continuous, never-ending filtration process wherein every band and musician pieces together unique combinations of notes and instruments and recording equipment to create something new. Or at least, something fresh. With every passing year comes a flood of new albums, new creators, and new filters. Perhaps Stephen Malkmus, Mr. Irony himself, said it best: “Bands start up / every day” (“NO BIG HAIR!”).

Perhaps inevitably, the traditional pop/rock combo is among the most revisited musical idioms, with easy I-IV-V chord progressions subject to reinterpretation by anyone who has ever played a guitar. Pop of the early Beatles guitar/piano/drums/bass/vox variety is still an effective means for musical expression, no matter how many pretentious avant-gardists refuse to like music whose defining characteristic is innate likeability. 2005 has seen a fair amount of compelling pop/rock albums, each one distinguished by some unmistakable trace of individuality. Without something substantive beneath the superficial four chords and token harmonies, pop music is nothing more than snakeskin, momentarily glistening before being sloughed off and left to shrivel away. At some point, what becomes relevant to people who take music seriously is not so much the end product but the approach.

It’s here that we come to Why?. Much like Clue To Kalo’s One Way, It’s Every Way, the appeal of Why?’s Elephant Eyelash should presumably lie in the creative process. Both records end up with many of the same elements as their more traditional-minded contemporaries, redrawing the old face of guitar/piano pop for the millionth time: guitars of the acoustic and electric varieties, tinkling pianos, idiosyncratic but generally serious lyrics, and (of course) hook-ridden harmonies, but stemming from totally different influences than, say, the New Pornographers or Magic Numbers.

Of course, this whole unique approach thing is all moot if the songs suck, as fellow Anticon’ers 13&God demonstrated earlier this year. The songs of Yoni Wolf are good but clumsy, his voice gawky and awkward without being especially endearing. Not as smooth or sophisticated as Clue To Kalo or as excitingly chaotic as Fog’s ode to low attention spans, Ether Teeth, Elephant Eyelash fails to distinguish itself. Barely any of the Anticon collective hip-hop influence which should presumably be all over this album is visible, with a four-man band taking on the musical duties instead of Wolf’s sampler.

The lyrics are a saving grace, the only major evidentiary of Why?’s hip-hop (er, Anticon) past: opener “Crushed Bones” remembers wearing “navy blue hoodies and khakis / as was the style that year” in a poke at underground fashion (later in the song they’re wearing trucker hats) and running from the cops in London, “where the sirens yelp / like a helpless dog with its paw stepped on / and the rain comes down in late July / and the record labels call you Why?.” Ragging on the police and fitting in a rhyme with his own moniker is certainly rap-worthy, and the album is full of clever wordplay that unfortunately gets de-emphasized in favor of the music. The problem is, Wolf spends more time in the role of rock singer than MC, with only the staggered delivery of “Crushed Bones” and “Act Five” drawing attention to his roots.

The music of Elephant Eyelash shows flashes of brilliance, though they’re sometimes hard to miss behind the guitars. “Sanddollars” contains an excellent segue where piano chords are matched to the cadence of the lyrics, but it only lasts for a few seconds before Why? returns to stale Death Cab For Cutie riffs. “Yo Yo Bye Bye” is probably the album’s best song, a serious piano ballad crammed with wispy production touches that flutter around the headphones. Following a rare drum sample, Wolf sings “We have to change if we’re gonna stay together.” It’s a statement about relationships, but it’s applicable to the album: too many of the songs, like “Gemini (Birthday Song)” and the murky folk dirge “Light Leaves” eschew the band’s older influences and dive head-first into plain old pop. What’s doubtlessly an exciting change for the band members ends up coming off as more of the same for the rest of us.

Why? has created a disappointingly safe album of reasonably enjoyable pop songs by interesting musicians masquerading as average ones. With Anticon’s left-field approach to hip-hop and Wolf’s previous material as Why? and cLOUDEAD in mind, one would expect the particular filters of Elephant Eyelash to shed a little light on the pop/rock genre. Instead, Why? fumbles around in the dark, clutching a dimming flashlight desperately in need of a new pair of batteries.