[live review] Searching for answers with WHY? @ Middle East Downstairs

Photo courtesy of the WHY? Facebook page.

When I saw WHY? at the Middle East Downstairs in summer 2010, it became firmly lodged in my mind as one of the best shows I had ever seen up to that point. The setlist was nearly immaculate -- they were touring a record that they didn't really care about too much -- and so most of the songs that they played were from Elephant Eyelash and Alopecia, two of the best fucking records of the aughts. They performed as energetically and intensely as they came off on those wonderful records, and the venue reacted in a beautiful way. Groups of indie kids who were crying behind their thick frames were thrown into a blender with those who were just fucking rocking out, and the emotions all blended together in a way that seemed to parallel those within the songs themselves. Honestly, it was one of those magical experiences that you only get once or twice in a band's lifetime. So when I found out they would be playing the exact same venue a few hours before their show this past Wednesday, I dropped everything I was doing, bought a ticket, and, to paraphrase Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, got my ass to Mars.

And, it was pretty fucking disappointing. The show was the kind of experience that's almost bad enough to taint the legacy of the amazing one I saw a little over two years ago. Who knows? I might have enjoyed it more if I didn't know what this band was capable of doing, but sadly enough you readers are saddled with my experiences of this shit. It sure as hell wasn't my fault it was a terrible show. It wasn't the audience's, or a bad sound guy's, or anybody who works over at the club either. Generally, I'm inclined to blame some of those people if a band plays a shitty show, mainly because the whole experience hinges on the quality of the room itself. If I just wanted to hear the songs, I'd listen to the record, but instead I'm questing for the right experience of seeing it in a communal setting. This really was the right venue in every way, shape, and form: the audience was incredibly into it, the sound was fucking phenomenal, and the staff really seemed to be enjoying themselves too, at least until WHY? went on. The fault doesn't lie with anybody other than the fucking band themselves, who are touring a pretty disastrous new record.

I mean no disrespect, but it's just a plain fact that the new songs just aren't as good as the old ones. They lack the intensity that made the most memorable songs on the records I mentioned above just so poignant and hard-hitting emotionally. The great thing about Yoni Wolf's lyrics wasn't his humor or his penchant for brilliantly obtuse simile; it was that they acted as a two-way confessional booth, a place where singer and listener could commune about the bad shit they've done or the awkward times they've had or what it exactly means to fall in love. The music only amplified this feeling, and even on their most poppy songs, there was always this strong undercurrent of sadness that permeated through.

The new record, Mumps, etc, though it obviously has more of the band's faith invested in it than Eskimo Snow (a better album, ironically enough) did, feels bizarrely saccharine. It doesn't help that almost every song begins with an overlay of harmonies from the band's support, a particular quirk that just felt really annoying at every turn. It's like if the Beach Boys started every track on Pet Sounds with the harmonies of Smile cut "Our Prayer": it's good every once in a while, but at a point it would just ruin the vibe even if there was a great song that followed. By the third time I heard those lame harmonies, I realized that they were committing the worst sin of any band performing live could do: they were being fucking boring.

Personally, I think they kind of realized that an audience would rebel on them if they just only played new songs. This was made pretty obvious by how they went debuting them in concert, done by a little approach that I like to call the "spoonful of sugar" tactic. If you play an old song to start with (in their case, "Good Friday"), it's almost guaranteed that you'll get the audience's attention long enough in order to play at least one new song from your untested new record. It's an approach that generally works well, and it's one of the pluses of being able to see a band with a new record you're kind of nervous about. It switches stuff up, and allows you to see connections between songs that you didn't know existed in the first place.

The problem with WHY?'s approach to all of this is that they played at least two new songs for every one that could be considered a classic. This gave the room enough time to lose its energy, and it felt like a dirge to get through. I felt pretty bad for the indie rockers, actually, especially for the ones who just wanted to lift their skinny fists in solidarity with the raps and have a good or meaningful time at the show, but were stymied at every corner by the quality of the new songs. I mean, they didn't even play the new single that they were touting to high heaven all over the internet, "Sod in the Seed", choosing instead to play exhausting tracks like "Strawberries".

Eventually, they just got rid of it all together and started to play most of the classics near the end, and they started to edge towards that incredible quality they had in the past. By the time they played Alopecia highlight "Simeon's Dilemma", half of the room seemed to be in tears, and I even read some tweets confirming that, yes, there were people crying. I got goosebumps. It was beautiful.

And then they left the stage, and a pretty pathetic encore didn't make me feel any differently. Watching people leave, it seemed like they were kind of satisfied. I felt like I'd eaten 40% of a good steak, and then watched as the other 60 was burnt to a fucking crisp as my house burned down.

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