The flight of Yoni Wolf and Brendon Whitney’s (performance names: Why? and Alias, respectively) careers, once chained to the doldrums of avant-hip-hop’s dank underbelly, has risen to the reaches of chic rock clubs and ethereal free-jazz dilettantes. Having bred their most notable recordings within the womb of Anticon’s loosely knit yet admirable Bay Area kibbutz (containing some 10 members), Wolf and Whitney represent opposing sides of the label’s spectrum. Wolf, born of a rabbi in Cincinnati, spent his childhood devoid of secular music. Whitney, an Irish descendant from rural southern Maine (Hollis, a population of just under 5,000) tossed around a gruff delivery nothing short of a Fat Joe. Yet it’s their increasingly individual departures from convention that render them synonymous now.
Once a purely solo act (then collaborating famously with the defunct cLOUDEAD), Why? made a name for himself by harmonizing a form of prose-rap that left listeners both awe inspired and dumbfounded. On
Elephant Eyelash, Wolf adopts three members (including brother Josiah on drums), turning Why? into a formal outfit; the skeletal remains of his MC career lie still while he and his men snake from the once proclaimed “post-rap” era toward “folk-pop” admiration. Think more happy Son Volt riffs than smoky Sun Ra loops.
Named after Whitney’s grandmother and inevitably suggesting Pavement and Jeff Magnum’s Neutral Milk Hotel “not so much a band as a concept” concept, Alias’s 13-track Lillian is a comparable departure, finding solace in stark, floating, voiceless compositions more Weather Report than DJ Shadow. Whitney, too, flies out his brother—Ehren, 11 years his junior. This is jamming fusion: woodwinds and horns free-forming over echoes of traditional boom-bap; Alias fingering synths as the samplers stay unplugged, collecting dust. A fitting step in his metamorphosing career; Whitney, after all, had closed his only vocal album, 2002’s remarkable The Otherside of the Looking Glass, with the prophetic anti-rhyming desire of “Final Act”: “All eyes on me. Performing in irony in more ways than one, mouth moves when it shouldn’t. I’ll do my shuffle for the acceptance of those who think my mouth should stay closed.” For both Alias and Why?, the days of uncomfortable creative compromise have been shed with the fading memories of their rural- and suburban-rap former lives, to genre-less proportions.