Listen to the WCPO Lounge Acts session with Yoni Wolf of WHY? in the audio player above.
CINCINNATI -- If Yoni Wolf had been born 20 years earlier he might have fallen into the same slipstream as poet/singers like Leonard Cohen, or been greeted as a kind of politically agnostic Bob Dylan. The longtime leader of Cincinnati-bred hip-hop/folk group WHY? definitely deals with politics on the band’s recently released sixth album, Moh Lhean. But they’re not the politics of street protests or the anti-anti-immigration polemics of songs like A Tribe Called Quest’s pointed Trump takedown, “We the People.”
Wolf is concerned with the politics of the heart, the legislation of figuring out where he stands in the world and where to find some light in all that darkness. It’s a topic he’s explored in depth over the group’s nearly 20 year career, but on Moh Lhean some of the cynicism and skepticism of the past is put on a shelf in favor of a more optimistic outlook.
“I would say this album is less … maybe it’s melancholic, but it’s less dark than previous WHY? albums,” says Wolf of the hope embodied in the image on the cover, a hand reaching skyward from under the water. Some people have seen it as a snapshot of man drowning, but for Wolf it’s the opposite: a stretch up, a sign of resilience. “I think there’s [also] a joyfulness and a rejuvenated… a new lease on life.”
As for why there was a nearly five-year break between 2012’s full-length Mumps, Etc. and the new effort, Wolf explains, “I take my time. Ideas were developing. We like to sort of start a song and sit on it for a while and let it marinate, sculpt on it and scrape away what we need to and let it breathe and develop its own life over time.”
Watch Yoni perform "Easy" from WHY?'s new album
While Wolf does break into a rap-like cadence at times on songs such as the uplifting “This Ole King” (watch the awesome 360-degree video for it here) and the funky “George Washington,” he mostly sings in a yearning plea on tracks like the expansive ballad “The Barely Blur” and “Consequence of Nonaction,” in which he lays out the evocative word painting: “In the hole on the Alcatraz tour/ You were scared to touch the walls/ You were scared to touch the floor/ Oh I want to touch your pulse/ I want to touch your core.”
Recorded at his home studio in Cincinnati and at his brother’s studio, Moh Lhean is about the “very big and the very small,” Wolf says, intimate relationships between individuals and the larger question of what we’re doing on earth. It’s about letting go, as Wolf sings in “One Mississippi,” of our place in the universe: “It mostly comes down to a gang of ants/ Swarming on the shadow of the stain of a drop of blood/ I know I’ve got to submit to/ Whatever it is in control.”
WHY? kicks off its U.S. tour on Thursday with a full band show at the Woodward Theater, with special guests The Ophelias and Molly Sullivan.
Thursday, March 16
Doors at 7:30 p.m, show at 8:30 p.m.
with The Ophelias
1404 Main St.
General admission: $15 advance, $18 day of show
WCPO Lounge Acts features intimate in-studio performances and interviews from outstanding musical artists.