CAMBRIDGE - For about five years, indie outfit Why? has been churning out albums that defy genre and expectations. Over shape-shifting structures of samples, beats, and synthesizers, frontman Yoni Wolf raps in his weedy voice with no apologies, spitting rhymes equally bizarre and beautiful.
Still, the golden boys of this fusion of hip-hop and indie rock have stayed under the radar, even as their project has grown from a one-man band to an eclectic trio with new collaborators on every record.
Appropriately, Why? has been a hovering question with no choral answer, but when the Oakland, Calif., band visited the Middle East Upstairs Tuesday night, it drew a resounding response: a sold-out venue and a crowd ready to watch the twists and turns of Why?'s kaleidoscopic sounds laid bare.
And that's just what the crowd got, with an emphasis on tracks from "Alopecia," the group's most cohesive and pop-centric work to date.
The trio brought two new members into the studio to record the album, turning their dreamy trademark sound into a force driven by rock. Fittingly, they brought along a fourth member for Tuesday's show to help translate the album live.
Their set was tight, with no tricks pulled or corners cut. Instead, they played a mesmerizing game of musical chairs - with musical instruments. Wolf alternated between bass, synths, and a drum set, like the straight-faced leader of a rebel marching band, while guitars switched hands from bandmate to bandmate behind him.
Nothing was skipped or smudged, and every sound - from tings to creaking guitar strums - was in place as Why? soared through tracks from "Elephant Eyelash" and "Alopecia," closing with the song "Crushed Bones."
Why? wasn't half the spacey outfit it sounded like on previous albums. They were rock - bursting drums and electric guitar riffs - but not strictly so. They slipped again beyond the grasp of genre, revisiting floating tracks like "The Hoofs" for a set that followed them from more ethereal incarnations to crowd favorites such as "Gemini (Birthday Song)," "These Few Presidents," and "Rubber Traits."