Published Jun 15, 2013Headlining a full-capacity Horseshoe Tavern, Yoni Wolf and Why? proved as intriguing and frustrating live as on record. Possessed of a vast, controlled energy, Wolf performed with martial poise, occasionally breaking out trapped-in-box mimes with admittedly impressive élan. As a maturing artist he practically owns existentially frayed hip-hop, confessional asides like "I cried to myself in the pisser" delivered not so much pitiably as with masochistic aggression. Lyrically he inhabits the everyday — "answering machines," "food courts" and "second floor hallways," hardly the stuff of aspirant lifestyles — while largely rejecting glorified platitudes. Indeed, where the set slumped were its preachier moments, and though you suspect he's usually addressing some form of himself, Wolf's more overt, second person rallying cries felt like the dubious encouragement of a terminally neurotic friend.
Still, when good he's great: songs like "These Few Presidents" demonstrate a novelist's eye, full-band choruses soaring like the joyful expulsion of some terrible insecurity. Slight in frame but magnified by intensity, Wolf is a compelling front-person and, despite his grating vocal tone, a technically accurate singer. His nasal flow has a kind of distant air of Neutral Milk Hotel doing rap — a comparison extendable to the lyrical theme of corrupted beauty: "These Few Presidents"' reflection on "the machinery of your throat" is pure Mangum. Elsewhere, Reichian steel drum loops mimic an intricately ordered yet somehow chaotic mind, apt accompaniment for a songwriter given to singularly lucid, spiritually muddled verses. Sadly a late start meant affairs were cut relatively short, leaving some fans feeling short-changed by a performance that might've hit jackpot with a few more spins.