Lost in Translation 

Deciphering Why?

The first single off Berkeley band Why?'s new album Alopecia is called "The Hollows." It's not the best song, but it may contain the best moment, which comes when Yoni Wolf's vocals, never slow, accelerate to such a breathless pitch it's obvious even if you're not listening that something's going down.

Here is what's going down: "In the tourist part I lost 50 euros/to the guy with the walnut shells and the marble/It really pissed me off/So, ooh, I thought I'd go back to get my money but all my homies warned me/Oh no, those gypsies prob'ly got kniiiiiiiiiiiiiiives."

You come away from Alopecia convinced Wolf's a great lyricist, but when you try to explain it to your friends—"There's this song where he gets ripped off in Berlin, or there's a song where he's sleeping on his back 'cause it's good for the spine, and coffin rehearsal'"—you get unimpressed eyebrow raises. These aren't the sort of lines that translate well. That's because what makes the Berlin story is the kniiiiiiiiiiiiiiives (and the dirty guitar that takes over for a few stabs after Wolf's out of breath), what makes the other line is the pause before "coffin rehearsal," and what makes Why? in general is the lush, dark, hiphop-flirting instrumentation and Wolf's endlessly sarcastic tone. By "The Song for the Sad Assassin," where the band jitters its way to a chiming climax as Wolf toys with the meter of the mantra, "Billy the Kid did what he did and he died," all complaints about archness, or preciousness, or pretentiousness, have evaporated. This band knows how to sell itself.

Alopecia is a sour album, forged in debauchery and bitterness, and you can feel dirty in its midst. But the music sweetens the sarcasm and blissfully elevates Wolf's sudden moments of poignancy, like the line, "My fear of the bear at Showbiz Pizza when I was six was overwhelming, and not dissimilar to this." I guess that one doesn't look so great either. It's all in the delivery.

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