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By Nick Megaw
On Oaklandazulasylum, Yoni Wolf’s last solo record before turning Why? into a full band, Wolf remarks, “I always wanted to be the voice of the streets/but my father was a rabbi and my mother made beats/I mean books/and the kids from the streets always gave me dirty looks.” The verse effectively explains Wolf’s music; he’s a hip-hop artist, certainly, but he’s more likely to be rapping about the mumps or depression than gangland fights.
Mumps, Etc., Wolf’s fourth album accompanied by the band, sees Wolf’s rapping come to the fore again after his flirtations with indie rock on 2008’s Alopecia and particularly 2009’s Elephant Eyelash. As such, the lyrics are obviously important, and he doesn’t disappoint; the elaborate rhymes are characteristically personal – despite claiming on ‘Distance’ that “Men and women might yet quote his modicum of the truth/but never will they get right close to Jonathan Avram Wolf”, elsewhere we hear a deconstruction of a broken relationship, as on the excellent ‘Paper Hearts’, while opener ‘Jonathan’s Hope’ is inspired by the illness Yoni and brother Josiah suffered on tour in Europe. Other songs cover “bouts of depression” and guilt over whether he is really confessing in his music.
Though the instrumentation is arguably less important than on Eskimo Snow, it remains a far cry from the minimal backing music on Wolf’s early solo work, with horns, harps and strings all making appearances in addition to the standard drums, guitar and keys, thanks to some help from the North Texas Music School near the recording studio the band used in Denton, Texas.
Strong as the album is, however, it does not approach the strength of Alopecia, and lacks any standout tracks as great as that album’s ‘Good Friday’ or ‘Crushed Bones’ on Elephant Eyelash. Moreover, the return to focus on spoken lyrics means the album is likely to be less pleasing to fans of ‘normal’ indie music than the last two, though it will please those who felt the band had gone too far towards the mainstream. Overall, then, Mumps, Etc. is good, but not great, and while likely to please existing fans, though for new listeners it would be difficult to recommend it ahead of earlier work, and it is unlikely to convert anyone who had already written them off.