Burning Question

WHY? might be one of the hardest musical nuts to crack. Centered on Yoni and Josiah Wolf, two Jewish brothers from Cincinnati, the group personifies snarky hipster rap at times. At other times, they produce pastoral, electro-bathed indie folk. And at others, they take self-skewering geek-pop to awkward new levels. The main hallmark, of WHY?’s music, however, is Yoni’s laconic, sing-songy, nasally voice. Underneath that sometimes-comical, sometimes-sickening delivery, fast-moving currents of experimentation and exploration abound. Trying to figure out exactly what this group is all about is the hard part.

On WHY?’s last three albums, keeping up often felt impossible. Some songs were straight-up rhyme-slingers, while others were downcast brooders. Some albums rolled with urgent energy, making critics swoon; some fumbled their way through excruciating duds, invoking fierce antipathy from all but the most hardcore WHY? adherents.

“Mumps, etc.,” the group’s latest album, somehow turns all those formerly disparate parts into one smooth, efficient, harmonious machine. Painfully personal recollections by Yoni strike listening gold, particularly on the ironic “Sod in the Seed” and the emotionally impactful “Kevin’s Cancer.” Professional confessionals find Yoni contemplating the end of his rap career on standout songs like “Bitter Thoughts” and “Strawberries,” the latter featuring a devastatingly funny verse: “Your mom sits while her hair is in curlers/Smokes weed and listens to that Garrison Keillor/That’s how I’ll live when I quit my rap career.”

WHY? is definitely love-it-or-hate-it material, though. Seminal music-criticism website pitchfork.com recently panned “Mumps, etc.,” awarding it a humiliating rating of 2.8 out of 10. In contrast, the site gave a rating of 8.2. to WHY?’s 2008 sophomore album, “Alopecia,” which to my mind doesn’t match the audio or lyrical approach of “Mumps.” Remember the part about WHY? being a tough musical nut to crack?

The most impressive difference on “Mumps, etc.,” however, is its achingly beautiful instrumentation, which harks to WHY?’s hip-hop heavy roots, while carrying on the band’s late-period indie-rock soul-searching. Josiah, who usually handles all of WHY?’s drums, electronic beats and production, said the band decided to record in Denton, Texas, where they recruited students from the nearby University of North Texas’ nationally renowned music program to add symphonic and orchestral touches to “Mumps, etc.” “We’ve always recorded everything ourselves,” Josiah said. “So it was definitely new going to UNT and having graduate and doctoral students help us achieve a different sound. But I think it worked out.”

Being different has never been a problem for WHY? Yoni started rhyming in the mid-’90s with a mixed bag of alternative-minded rappers. After moving west to the Bay Area, he released a score of left-field hip-hop records under various pseudonyms, including Greenthink, Clouddead, Object Beings, Reaching Quiet and Hymie’s Basement. In 2003, Yoni recruited his brother Josiah and good friends Doug McDiarmid and Matt Meldon for a solo album, eventually turning that group into WHY?’s core (Meldon has since departed, replaced most recently by Josiah’s wife, Liz). Since the beginning, though, the band hasn’t shied away from controversy and contradiction. “Part of the fun for us has been finding different ways to go for the sound that we want to hear,” Josiah said. “I guess that’s what makes us unique.”

Given Yoni’s hip-hop history (he co-founded well-respected alt-rap label Anticon Records), his reputation as a tongue-twister will remain, even if “Mumps, etc.” is full of signifiers that point to the aforementioned “end” of Yoni’s career. Watching the band’s recent six-part mockumentary, “Documenting WHY?,” though, it’s hard to decide how much stock to put in those claims. Perhaps that sense of comedic pathos is why it’s been so easy for WHY? to resist any external pressure to remain pigeonholed in one particular niche.

“In the beginning, our fans were mostly all hip-hop dudes in their 20s,” Josiah said. “But the fans have gotten a lot younger now — it’s definitely a different scene, although we still have the hip-hop contingent that always wants to hear the old stuff. It’s not really pressure, though, and it becomes less and less as the years go by.”

So what is it that makes a small but surprisingly devoted fan base stick with WHY? Perhaps it’s the fact that the band’s singularity seems aloof and natural, rather than forced or premeditated. When asked if there was ever any sort of game plan for WHY?’s musical hybridization, Josiah answered with a sigh that indicated how often he fields the question: “My brother likes writing rap stuff that has rhyme play, but he also enjoys writing songs with regular lyrics and deliveries, as well. I like different styles, which all go into our music. … I don’t know. I don’t think anything [with us] has ever been done consciously.”

Nick McG