The Phantom Tollbooth
Look Back
Artist: Why?
Label: Alliance Music
Time: 19/68.54

It may be hard to picture a band who gives The Electrics a run for their money in terms of zanyness and speed, but here's one. Another band that is sometimes thrown in with the Celtic crowd, Why? mixes a good dose of English and Irish folk-rock with strong Wonder Stuff and Eden Burning influences, and some of their own wit. This album is a retrospective collection released due to the band's recent shift in focus and the departure of long time members.

In reviewing an album, a reviewer is often faced with something of a conundrum. Music can be examined in an objective way, assessing the technical skill of the musicians, the quality of the songwriting, and various other tenets, but as an art form it also involves a very subjective degree of appreciation. In reviewing this album, the problems around that become very apparent to me. Having seen the band live sixteen times, many of these songs are familiar friends to me, and the recordings serve more as reminders than as albums I sit and enjoy as albums. Listening carefully, the weaknesses are very clear. Alongside clever, humourous and occasionally insightful lyrics are the odd confused arrangement and often weak vocals, along with a very limited range of chord progressions. The range of instruments used can both add a pleasing level of texture, or (particularly with the tracks from the most recent album, Pinnenstripensuitenwearenfoddergeburnernclippencloppen,) lead to over-busy arrangements. Some of the rough edges are due to the band's commitment to keep things organic, and their sense of humour, but they do distract from the album.

For a band with as large a back-catalogue as Why? (8 previous releases) it can be difficult to pick out which tracks to use, but this has been managed well. The best representation of the band on record is 1996's Jig at a Why? Gig Live '96, and the tracks from that album here demonstrate the live show pretty well, at least as well as can be done without a large collection of sweat! It becomes apparent from the lyrics that the members of the band are not afraid to laugh at themselves, or various other things, but can also touch on more serious issues. "Because The Drug" is a well written look at illegal drugs, and is also well enduring--this is at least the fourth recording of it. This time it is radically different from previous versions, with the mandolin leaving and keyboards and bass becoming dominant.

"Grandfather's Clock" from 1995's Giggle is probably the standout track. All the elements we've come to expect are here. Violin and mandolin lead things with clear vocals and a beat that denies you the right to remain stationary. The lyrics are clearly Christian, and take a sideways glance at contemporary events (written just after an attempted mortar bombing of Heathrow Airport):

This project is an interesting retrospective for the fans, but for the newcomer I still think the live album Why? recorded would be a better introduction. Now that the band has slowed down the touring, a record label has been found, and the line-up has hopefully settled down, it will be interesting to see where they go. My feelings about this signpost, however, are very mixed.

By James Stewart