Though WHY?’s Eskimo Snow seems at first glance to be another in the continuing cases of white underground hip hop artists moving away from what originally brought them to the game towards unexplored sonic vistas like folk, psychedelia, noise, and metal — you gotta be fair. Yoni Wolf and his partners have been catholic in their approach to beats, melodies and live instrumentation for several years now. And not just in WHY? but also in offshoots like the pioneering cLOUDDEAD and Hymie’s Basement.
That said, Eskimo Snow has left hip hop far behind. Rhymes have been jettisoned for a plaintive yowl that resembles solo Ed Sanders, the two Johns in They Might Be Giants, and Kurt Wagner from Lambchop. The minimalist live instrumentation from Josiah Wolf, Doug McDiarmid, and Austin Brown is steeped in indie pop like Pavement and Silver Jews and the old weird baroque of Van Dyke Parks. It’s pretty freewheeling stuff on the whole — that’s the sole thread that connects it to early WHY? — and there are some genuinely beautiful moments like “Into the Shadows of My Embrace,” but Wolf’s singing voice isn’t strong enough to carry the album. It’s neither a full-throated belt nor even Lou Barlow-esque anti-singing (which would work with this music). Instead, it’s a reedy sing-talk that keeps making me think he’s going to tell me the difference between Istanbul and Constantinople.
This is an intriguing moment in WHY?’s evolution; change is good, and trying new things is even better. However, the danger in moving too far away from their innovative hip hop roots is that WHY? might just end up another indie rock band in an already crowded field.