Union Transfer

1026 SPRING GARDEN STREET, PHILADELPHIA, PA 19123 Ι 215-232-2100

WHY?

WHY?

Dessa, Grimace Federation

Mon, September 22, 2014

Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 8:30 pm

Union Transfer

Philadelphia, PA

$15.00 - $16.00

This event is all ages

WHY?
WHY?
"I'll go unknown by torpedo or Crohn's / Only those evil live to see their own likeness in stone." It's the kind of couplet you'd carve into a wall whilst savoring the irony at hand, but when Yoni Wolf spit the line ten years ago he was blissfully, broodily unaware that he and his band WHY? were creating a career-defining album—one so fan-adored that it would go out of print, and so influential that the art-pop heroine Lorde herself would lovingly steal the very lyric quoted above. When it dropped in 2008, Alopecia not only marked WHY?'s evolution from a sonically collaged mostly solo project to a live-recorded powerhouse band of badass multi-instrumentalists. It also minted a genre of one: wryly written, poignantly posed, simultaneously swaggering and heart-rending song-rap that jangles like folk, bursts like psych-rock, and sways like chamber pop. To this day, there is no other group in the known universe that sounds or feels like WHY? does on Alopecia. The album's 2018 reissue cheekily etches that aural likeness into our musical history.

Revisiting these songs is like catching up with an old, very strange friend—one who obsesses over his mortality, wonders if his ex is some sort of god, identifies as a "lifelong local foreigner," and does his emotional unpacking in public restrooms*. When Yoni sings that he's been "faking suicide for applause in the food courts of malls" on album opener "The Vowels Pt. 2," you aren't sure if it's a metaphor about fame or a real thing he did. Our narrator's odd charm is Alopecia's most enduring gift. Inspired by Bob Dylan and Joanna Newsom, Yoni packs confessional candor and vivid detail into honeyed melodies. Energized by Lil Wayne and MF DOOM, he seeds self-effacing boasts and mesmeric wordplay within complex rhyme schemes. The result is a swirl of humor, desperation, and beauty that both pulls us into his world and draws out our own proud, wounded inner weirdo. As Yoni coos on "The Hollows," "This goes out to dirty-dancing, cursing, backmasking, back-slidden pastors' kids / and all us Earth growths; some planted, some pulled."

That perspective formed in our hero's native Cincinnati—born in the basement of his rabbi dad's synagogue when lil Yoni started making songs on a dusty 4-track, and come of age in a different basement in his college years where, instead of graduating, he teamed with roommate Doseone and pal Odd Nosdam to form the revered avant-rap trio cLOUDDEAD. These family and friends haunt Alopecia—Dose raps on "The Hollows"; Nosdam is namechecked on "A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under"; Yoni's father and the language of faith appear often—creating layers of narrative for WHY?'s typically deep-diving fans to unpack. By 2008, Yoni was settled in Oakland, adding to the legacy of the Anticon label/collective he cofounded (most notably with his official 2003 LP debut Oaklandazulasylum). Though his brother Josiah Wolf and fellow Ohioan Doug McDiarmid moved west and joined WHY? before 2005's Elephant Eyelash, they had not yet recorded as a proper unit, or in a proper studio. Hell, Yoni'd never even tried to make his words rhyme before.

You already know that they did all of those things and were rewarded with Alopecia, an album as adventurous as it is accessible, and remarkably fluid. To wit, "These Few Presidents" slides between modes, from upbeat and forced-smile bubbly to seething and slowly roiling. "Song of the Sad Assassin" is a tempo-blind rollercoaster of piano, vibes, vocal percussion, guitar, drum, and bass. And "Twenty Eight" spins a feedback-drenched rap beat, something like the Bomb Squad on acid, on a carousel. WHY?'s mind meld is all the more impressive considering they left their jerry-rigged home setup for Minneapolis' Third Ear studio, in the winter, and added Fog members Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson to the lineup. Over 20 days, the thermometer never cracked zero. There were hot toddies aplenty, Miles Davis records on repeat, and cramped quarters. In this heady, unfamiliar space, Yoni worried it was all for naught. But while recording "Good Friday," a brutal breakup song, he caught full-body chills. It wasn't the blizzard outside.

The Alopecia sessions were so successful, in fact, that they spawned two LPs (WHY?'s fourth, Eskimo Snow, arrived 18 months later). This one was finished in Berkeley and when time came to name it, Yoni chose a word that appears nowhere in the lyrics. He'd recently found a hole in his beard which his old art-hop comrade Slug of Atmosphere identified as alopecia. The concept fit: more than on any other WHY? release, Yoni was uncovering his anger, anxiety, and ambition—celebrating his ugly by wearing his lowest of lows like badges of honor, devising characters to exorcise his inner demons, and arriving at begrudging self-affirmation. There's a line on "Brook & Waxing," reprised on "By Torpedo or Crohn's," that's become the loudest shout-along moment at WHY? concerts and the most likely quote to find tattooed in the crowd: "While I'm alive I'll feel alive / And what's next I guess I'll know when I've gotten there." Therein lies Alopecia's genius: we'll never get "there," not in 10 years past or 10 years more, but the beauty is in pushing on.

*really, there are no fewer than six bathroom scenes on Alopecia; can you find them all?
Dessa
Dessa
From its first track, Dessa's new full-length Parts of Speech (6.25.13, Doomtree Records) announces itself as something different. The Doomtree veteran and inveterate wordsmith — having proved her mettle in the fields of creative non-fiction, spoken-word and hip-hop — jettisons all genre expectations on "The Man I Knew" and croons a heartbreaking lament to a disintegrating relationship at an explosively-building clip.

From this moment on Dessa — oft--described as "Mos Def plus Dorothy Parker" for the wit and flow shown off on previous solo albums A Badly Broken Code and Castor, The Twin — proves she has truly coalesced as an artist, transcending the restrictions of genre to reveal an astonishing multi-platform voice.

"I wanted to investigate the idea that a cohesive record isn't always made cohesive by having twelve songs that sound the same. I figured when you make a mixtape for a friend, you can get away with a range of genres and a lot of dynamic change. Why can't I approach an album like that? The sequence has to be just right, and we worked hard to nail it, but the thing that holds this record together is the sensibility of the lyrics, rather than a uniform theme."

Track two kicks off a stunning hat-trick of the record's standout numbers. "Call Off Your Ghost" is an admittedly haunting dirge on the "struggle for grace in the wake of a long relationship." An arena-sized chorus tucked into a melancholy lullaby, "Ghost" has that unique ability to perfectly soundtrack new love or bitter breakup at the same time.

Dessa then puts her fists up for "Warsaw." The track boasts a beat like Azealia Banks playing Pacman, which provides a background for our emcee's confident, hypnotic flow. Narrative takes a backseat to mood here, as Dessa spits impressionistic one-ups like "I sleep with both eyes open, standing up," daring you to blink first.

"Skeleton Key" contains Parts of Speech's mission statement: "I haven't met a locked door yet." An ode to female self-reliance that doesn't waste ambiance for message, the track plays like a great, lost M. Night Shyamalan movie, calling forth an era out of time in the story of a woman, a key and a bottomless reserve of courage.

"This record involves multiple narratives. It explores the same themes of love, loss, connection and communion as a lot of my work, but the angle and lens through which they're explored sets this album apart from my previous ones. The production techniques were new for me too — we spent a lot of time crafting a record that could include live players, Doomtree production, and sometimes a blend of the two."

While the album is born of Dessa's artistic vision, it benefits from the collaboration of her varied friends. Parts of Speech owes much of its impact to its diverse production. Dessa got her start as a member of Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree — eventually going on to help manage the group's business affairs as they launched their own label — and members Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger lend their production to several tracks.

The players in Dessa's live ensemble all contributed to the record, as did several top-flight Minneapolis musicians working in rock, folk, and opera. She even enlisted a cellist she found on Pandora to make the gorgeously-layered foundation of penultimate track "It's Only Me."

Dessa, born and raised in Minneapolis after her parents met at a Duluth music store, was valedictorian of her high school, eventually skipping a year of college and graduating with honors before she could legally drink. Armed with a philosophy degree, the intrepid Midwesterner spent her nights as a waitress and days writing reference manuals used by doctors in the implantation of pacemakers.

"Language and verbal communication were important in my family. If I could argue my way into a later curfew, that argument was entertained. My parents may have regretted that policy later but it was a great motivator to help me develop a facility with words."

A love of words is evident in both Parts of Speech's title and its ethos, as Dessa's philosophy training surfaces too. The rousing chorus of "Fighting Fish" references the Greek philosophical paradox of Zeno's Arrow. "Beekeeper," polished up from a starker appearance on Castor, finds Greek god Prometheus repossessing fire from the humans. "Sound the Bells" sings of Mercator, the cartographical genius who pioneered flat maps of a round world.

Parts of Speech could be made by no one but Dessa, but in its evolution and awareness it is the perfect culmination of the journey started with 2010's A Badly Broken Code. Middle album Castor, The Twin was in many ways a blueprint for Speech. The earlier albums were praised widely for their focus and depth, but Speech shows a fantastic breadth.

By uniting a wealth of different tones and narratives under Dessa's unmistakable poeticism, Parts of Speech greatly resembles Sherwood Anderson's modernist fiction classic Winesburg, Ohio. Dessa creates a new world, populating it with complex characters, beautiful sonic landscapes and refreshing, assertive production.

An album that can boom out of a car window after its summer release, or soundtrack a November night in, Parts of Speech marks a highpoint in Dessa's career and demonstrates the crossover power of the rising star's burgeoning arsenal.
Grimace Federation
Grimace Federation
"A hypnotic boom of sound packed with odd meters, psyched out tones and beautifully spooky melodies. "philly's secret weapon" A.D. AMOROSI CITY PAPER
Venue Information:
Union Transfer
1026 Spring Garden St.
Philadelphia, PA, 19123