WHY Bother?

Indie hip-hop innovators WHY? turn out their most polarizing record yet. And Spokane is all over it

Up until now, WHY?, an innovative and influential hip-hop-indie-rock band, has enjoyed what many music writers would call “critical darling” status.

And then the band released its latest record, Mumps, Etc.

“Most of the reviews have been positive,” says Josiah Wolf, the band’s drummer, over the phone last week. “It just so happened that probably the most negative review we got was from a website that reaches a lot of people.”

The website in this case was Pitchfork.com, a prolific music news and reviews site and current arbiter of all that is important in music. Pitchfork’s often-mysterious, numerical rating system spat out a dismal 2.8 (out of a possible 10) and the ensuing paragraphs describing Mumps, Etc.’s various failings could be construed as personally spiteful. When referencing singer Yoni Wolf’s vocals and lyrics — perhaps the two most essential hallmarks of WHY?’s sound — the reviewer, Ian Cohen, calls them, “Combatively nasal, all jagged edges and botched notes,” and says, “Wolf makes an irreversible, disheartening slide into Borscht Belt jokes about his advancing age.”

“Who knows why the reviewer didn’t like it?” says Wolf. “It seems like maybe he was tired of listening to WHY? or maybe he just had a bad day.”

In fact, the band’s previous albums (including one reviewed by the same Ian Cohen), all managed to garner high ratings on Pitchfork. And other reviews of Mumps, Etc. on the Web and in various print outlets have been mostly positive, if not as glowing as for some past efforts.

In fact, Mumps, Etc. is not a dramatic departure from WHY?’s past full-length albums. Wolf’s lyrics remain incredibly dense and personal, revealing details and insights that aren’t always pleasant to behold but that often convey a unique depth and poetic beauty. And his delivery, nasal as it truly is, bounces in counterpoint with the band’s off-kilter rhythms and time signatures, creating an intricately syncopated amalgam that challenges the listener to pay careful attention. This is a band that does not create background sounds.

“We always have a plan for each record and we’re always trying to do something a little different, to challenge ourselves,” says Wolf. “It keeps it interesting and it keeps us moving as a band.”

If anything is different on Mumps, Etc. it is the music. Always accomplished, WHY?’s players have, on this record, grown into a kind of elegance that was not as evident before. The lurching, raw arrangements they are known for have evolved into something a little simpler but a lot more sophisticated. Thing are more “pop” oriented, but there are orchestral layers — harps, horns, choir voices — that enhance the album’s overall texture.

The band’s live shows have, over the years, attracted a loyal following. And while the success of Mumps, Etc. has not been exactly what the band had in mind when they made the record, it has been rewarding nonetheless.

“We were maybe trying to reach out to people who didn’t know us yet and that hasn’t necessarily been the case, but we’ve had other positive things happen,” says Wolf. “What you envision from the beginning doesn’t always end up like you originally thought it would, but then at the end of it all you realize you’ve ended up in a better place regardless.” 

WHY? with Dream Tiger and Astronautalis • Thurs, Feb. 28, at 7:30 pm • The Center • 6425 N. Lidgerwood St. • $12 • All-ages • thecenterofspokane.com • 742-7879