Many bands and solo artists want their albums to be like snapshots in time, with the songs reflecting where they were musically and what was happening in their lives at that point.
That's certainly how things have played out for Yoni Wolf, the songwriter and frontman of the group Why? Each of the group's four full-length albums — Elephant Eyelash (2005), Alopecia (2008), Eskimo Snow (2009) and Mumps, Etc. (released in October 2012) — has had a decidedly different feel and style.
Elephant Eyelash established a template for the music Wolf would create with the group, which formed in 2004. (Wolf had spent the preceding seven years recording and performing with several other projects, including Greenthink, Clouddead, Reaching Quiet and Hymie's Basement.). Elephant Eyelash placed Wolf's laid-back sung-spoken vocals over music that drew from pop (often with an eccentric/surrealist bent), folk, psychedelic rock and hip-hop.
Alopecia, showed a looser, more direct and live sound, with a few full-on pop tunes to go with the expected rap/pop songs. Eskimo Snow (which was written and recorded during the same period as Alopecia) was a departure. The rap element was largely missing and instead Wolf and the group went for more of melodic sound that covered an impressive array of pop forms and instrumentation.
Mumps Etc. is different animal as well. This time out, most of the songs are decidedly laid back, as Wolf mixes rapped vocals (usually in verses) with pretty pop melodies to create the group's most balanced rap/pop blend.
"It's not the easiest thing to answer other than just saying that, a lot of it goes to just life stuff," Wolf said, trying to explain the ever-evolving sound of Why? in a phone interview.
Each album, he said, has reflected the time and place in which it was created, Wolf said.
"I've never been settled in a place," he said. "I've always been in a different place, a different circumstance, you know, been on tour most of the time. There's an unsettledness that lends itself toward variation and just experimentation and just trying to figure out new ways of doing the same thing and new ways of writing songs."
Mumps Etc., Wolf said, reflected his state of mind at the time.
"I think it was mainly probably my OCD stuff flaring up," Wolf said, good-naturedly, but seemingly in all seriousness. "When I'm like that, I have trouble tolerating sort of sloppiness and stuff like that. For better or worse, that was sort of what was going on and I wanted everything to be tight and exact.
"Especially coming out of the last one, which was sort of the most live-sounding — the last two, Alopecia and Eskimo Snow, were pretty live-sounding and sort of the whole band playing together," he said. "We kind of wanted to do something different where it felt a little tighter and a little more part oriented and arranged. That is kind of how we went about it."
That idea, though, came with some downsides for Wolf and his bandmates, drummer Josiah Wolf (Yoni's brother), guitarist/keyboardist Doug McDiarmid and keyboardist Liz Wolf (Josiah's wife). It took a little of the fun out of the Mumps Etc. project.
"I really like the results of this album, and I like the way it sounds a lot," he said. "There's such clarity and that's what I was really wanting... Also I think it sounds better than all of the other albums. But it definitely was one of these things that was a challenge to get through the whole process. I think you can kind of hear that in there, and that's sort of part of what it is. As opposed to this like sort of relaxed, joy making thing, it was arduous, labored over, sort of a drudging thing,"
For as precise as Mumps Etc. is, Why? takes a looser approach to performing the new material (as well as earlier songs and tunes off of Golden Ticket, [an EP the group released last year] live, allowing the songs to take on different personalities in the concert setting.
"Most of the people didn't play the parts they're playing live on the album," he explained. "They kind of learn the parts and give them their own feel. So they [on album and live] are definitely two different disciplines, and we treat it as such and celebrate that as opposed to get down on ourselves for not playing exactly what the record is."