If the hundred or so lyrical gems on Alopecia, the excellent new album from the Oakland group Why?, the most arresting is on a song called "The Hollows": "In Berlin I saw / two men f**k / in a dark corner of a basketball court. / Just a slight jingle of pocket change pulsing." The line's delivered with decidedly pop phrasing by front man Yoni Wolf in nasal deadpan over straightforward, palm-muted electric guitar eighth notes.
"The idea is that you're far away and you see something through binoculars," he says on the road from Chicago to Milwaukee. "And then all of a sudden you're there in his pocket, as close as you can be to the action. Sort of a macro/micro thing."
Wolf with a pen and piano keyboard -- he wrote most of Alopecia with one hand on each -- is like a furiously creative director with a camera. Better yet, he's like a rapper. Ghostface Killah, maybe, a stream-of-consciousness storyteller. Or MF DOOM, a phonetic MC hooked on assonance and consonance.
But not Sole or doseone. Not the avant-garde rappers who built the label (anticon) Why? is signed to. There's no comparison there.
As a lyricist and front man, Yoni is miles from his record label's famous reputation for unintelligible art-rap gibberish. Every word on Alopecia is understandable and entertaining. Pointedly, Why? isn't going over anybody's head. The album's best tracks -- "Brook & amp; Waxing," "The Hollows," "Fatalist Palmistry" -- are total pop songs, from their memorable verses to melodic, well-crafted choruses.
Most importantly, Yoni is not a rapper. He's like a rapper. Rappers make it rain, but in "These Few Presidents," he says Washington, Lincoln and Hamilton are "frowning in my pocket." He speaks words on Alopecia, and all of them are syncopated, but most of the record is sung, taking vocal cues from Apples in Stereo and Pavement, with a touch of Ben Folds. It's progressive indie-pop, but the sheer volume of words, phonics tricks and humorous turns of phrase indicate hip-hop. After all, where else have you heard money referred to as "presidents"?
Yoni's brother, Why? drummer Josiah Wolf, says after his brother brought fully formed song demos to the rest of the band, the album was made in about five weeks.
Particularly on what Yoni calls "the rap-type songs," Josiah, Andrew Broder, Mark Erickson and Doug MacDiarmid (Mark and Andrew don't tour; bass/guitar man Austin Brown does) fleshed things out with simple riffs, squeezing in atmosphere wherever they could, building tracks more around rhythm than anything else.
For Alopecia's most prominent "rap-type" song, "The Fall of Mr. Fifths," Josiah recalls the process by which he arrived at, if not that good old boom bap, at least a vicious bam thwok: "There's one drum sound where if you speed the tape up and record it real fast, then it records the natural sound at a faster tempo. So when you slow it down to the normal tempo, it sort of sounds stretched out." Layering that over another drum track of Josiah pounding away with heavy mallets, "Mr. Fifths" has a momentous, monstrous beat. The drums are bare bones and a little Rhodes organ floats on top. It's minimalist spoken-word that, seemingly for the first time ever, sounds bold and exciting.
Later, for the devastating chorus breakdown on the otherwise cute "These Few Presidents," the bass register of a Casio keyboard rattles with bowel-shaking force, sounding like a bowed cello run through a guitar amp. In a Matrix-style bullet-time switch-up, various fidelities of background percussion clap to complement the dark swoop. At such moments, Why? is playing perfect pop for the modern age, throwing fat pitches and nasty curveballs.
On one hand, Alopecia is all about delivery: Its instrumentation is lush and unusual, the orchestration dramatic and varied, and that's partly how the band chooses to surprise the ears. But mostly, listeners will be thrown for loops by the content of Yoni Wolf's poetry, particularly his lovely knack for conjuring distinct place/time pockets. He loves a descriptive zinger.
Detailing an obsessive relationship, he mock threatens: "Don't pretend / You didn't see me coming around the bend / On my fixie with the chopped points turned in / Trailing behind your biodiesel Benz." The illustration is funny, and the semi-sweet punch lines -- "fixie" (a single-speed, fixed-gear bike mostly ridden by slender urban hipsters) and "biodiesel Benz" (environmentally conscious and cool at the same time) -- report on the everyday present.
These images, like those from other Alopecia vignettes set in Whole Foods and thrift store bathrooms, had yet to make their way into popular song lyrics. They give Why? the heft of some new emergent Americana.
"A biodiesel Benz is the same as a fixie to me," Yoni laughs, pointing out that, yeah, biodiesel is the right idea, but back-patting yuppies restoring Mercedes Benzes from the '70s is just funny to him. "It's what we're living in right now. I think that makes [the songs] more real," he says. He likes that a lot of rap music is so timely and topical, enjoys hearing Phife Dog from A Tribe Called Quest rapping about his Timberland boots, "because that's what everyone was wearing in '92, '93."
He laughs again and wonders if people will listen to Why? in the future and ask each other, "Hey, remember Whole Foods?"
Why? with guests at the Big Easy on Tuesday, April 15, at 8 pm. $8. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.