Returning to the brighter, bolder strokes of 2008's much-beloved Alopecia after its relatively somber sibling record (and follow-up), Eskimo Snow, the fifth album from Yoni Wolf and company is their most assured work to date; the sharpest expression of an aesthetic that remains undeniably, wholly their own. It's also probably their most balanced offering, with equal weight given to emotional heft, melodic sweetness, Wolf's deft, rap-like lyricism, and the band's richly colorful arrangements. Mumps, Etc. doesn't entirely break new ground in any of those areas, except perhaps the latter -- beyond the now-familiar layers of keyboards and mallet percussion, they called in orchestral musicians and a choir to further flesh out the album's sonics. Indeed, pretty much everything here could easily have fit on Alopecia. In other words, you can expect reams of Wolf's witty, diaristic verse, peppered with wry quotables and frequently dazzling internal rhymes, set against lovely, unpredictable backdrops full of instrumental ear-candy -- this time out, they're positively sumptuous, with an abundance of harps, marimbas, strings, flutes, and female harmonies, plus a bit more boom-bap in the percussion department. As for Wolf, he's in top form throughout. Riffing on malady and disease (per the album's title; both mental and physical); death and aging (he is, after all, "pushing past thirty"); life's absurd detritus (from "G4 motherboards with '90s porn in their cache" to "the angular Etruscan tchotchke mom-mom got me at the Met gift shop"); a bit of sex, and his music career (as well as the prospect of retirement -- he envisions himself, like your mom, smoking weed and listening to "that Garrison Keilor"), he is, by turns, bleak, sardonic, bemused, and humbly, philosophically hopeful. He also lays out his (typically downbeat) themes in a series of atypically straightforward chorus hooks: "I am not okay, boys." "I'll never shirk this first-world curse: a steady hurt and a sturdy purse." "I know with no uncertainty/that I'm uncertain and I don't know." That last is from "Kevin's Cancer," one of several lyrics wherein Wolf grapples with religion more directly than he has in the past -- a natural enough topic for the mortality-obsessed son of a rabbi, though interestingly, there are nearly as many Christian references here as Jewish ones. Opener "Jonathan's Hope" finds him addressing the Lord directly: "Will you spell out love in the lashes life serves up/or am I just a red bump in the rash of cash worship?" He also comes up with a handful of excellent new epithets for himself: "the blundering braggart," "the doctor of ramble and world scramble." Sure, you could call it solipsistic -- a word that's crying out for a labyrinthine Yoni rhyme, if ever there was one -- if self-deprecatingly so -- but Wolf is as honest and, in a greater sense, as generous a songwriter as we have, and Mumps, Etc. may be his finest gift yet.
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AllMusic Review by K. Ross Hoffman