Who woulda guessed that Yoni Wolf was the next teenage heartthrob? It's certainly not a call I would have made the first time I spun a Why?
record but there they were at Le Poisson Rouge last night, gaggles and gaggles of knock-kneed, painfully earnest younglings just eager to lap up the confessional antics of Mr. Wolf. I guess it makes a certain kind of sense: even weird girls need somebody who speaks to all of their boredom, isolation, confusion and who screams "sensitive, understanding and, most importantly, honest
" like the man who's been known to sing about shitting himself, his favorite sex-positions and his time as a stalker? So good for you, Yoni, you've officially made it, you're the Morrisey of the hip-hop world. Too bad your bands stage show hasn't progressed since I first saw you two years back. You're still playing the same songs (almost song for song the exact same set!), still jerking around the stage like a spastic muppet, and making awkward and excruciatingly self-conscious conversation with your audience. Only now you're phoning it in, leaving behind all of the anxiety and awkwardness you once channeled for disorienting effect and replacing it with a lazy imitation of the same (oh, and let's not forget the distracting artsy-fartsy videomontages. Can't forget those!).
Maybe Mr. Wolf and Co. were just nervous because they knew they were playing catch-up with their first act. If Why? were a sack of wet-noodles then Dessa
was a whip, stretched taut, razor quick and just as sharp. She didn't just look like one the way she stalked around stage, controlled, lithe and limber; she sounded like one, too, each word of her perfect hip-hop delivered with a snapping intensity and each rhyme perfectly constructed for maximum scathing effect. It's clear that she's still very much in touch with the emotions that gave rise to these songs, almost all of them about heartbreak or a kind of world-shaking disappointment, but with a control granted by time and distance. It's an impressive effect and one that introduces a dangerous, welcome energy to her concerts.
The only problem is, like a whip, her words and presence work best at keeping the audience at a remove despite a very real sense that she wanted the exact opposite. Songs would build up to a moment of emotional catharsis, one that demanded some kind of sustained explosion, but would dissolve in a sharp snap that didn't allow for the kind of release Dessa seemed to be working towards and her audience seemed to demand. Even when she jumped down into the pit and danced with the fans she seemed restrained and distant despite a very clear hope that by doing this she might close said gap. The contradictions between this need for distance and this need for intimacy are interesting in and even, at times, make for exhilarating stage play, but it feels as if Dessa is best served by keeping her remove: that's where her power is, that's where her presence is and that is, most importantly, where the emotion in her words is.