WHATFOR is more than just pop.
The man behind the moniker, Michael Sienkowski, has the mentality of the classics, a knack for sharp songwriting and a handsome set of pipes. This ensures that Whatfor's debut album is pointedly smart and crafty without compromising its levelheaded measure - the finest Midwestern gallantry tempered by the strong hands of wry humor and verse. With songs masking self-mockery in '60s-style pop, "Sooner Late Than Never" channels the sardonic joy of The Kinks, joined by Beatles harmonies and a vocal style reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright. Despite the oft-biting lyrical subject matter, the album sounds upbeat and manages to escape the trap of redundancy that can plague pop rock. Each track takes its own personality, from touches of baroque, finger-plucked rag to tongue-in-cheek misogyny that will put your hips in a twist.
Sienkowski is no stranger to the Madison, Wisconsin music scene. He's the drummer for spastic-pop trio Sleeping in the Aviary and was a founding member of the late, lamented Eyebeams. Whatfor finds him taking full advantage of his musical neighbors. SITA bandmates Elliott Kozel (guitar) and Phil Mahlstadt (bass) help flesh out Sienkowski's own work on piano, vocals and drums. Beth Morgan of Madison's Pale Young Gentlemen acts as cellist laureate, while UW music majors Erin Heinke (harpsichord) and Jamie Kember (trombone) add extra flavor to the mix. Cribshitter's Christine Christenson even busts out her tuba for a track. Overall, the crew conveys a sense of musical modesty, lending the album skillfully minimalist performances which Sienkowski has layered into an irrepressibly catchy whole.
"Sooner Late than Never", recorded by Ricky Riemer at Science of Sound in Madison, is scheduled for release May 20, 2008 on the Science of Sound label.
Michael Sienkowski- vocals, drums, piano, guitar
Phil Mahlstadt- bass
Elliott Kozel- guitar, backup vocals
Beth Morgan- cello
Erin Heinke- harpsichord
Jamie Kember- trombone
Christine Christenson- tuba
Previously: Sleeping in the Aviary drummer Michael Sienkowski stored up some songs that didn’t quite fit with the band’s raggedy aesthetic, and the trio found some time last year to start arranging and recording them under the name Whatfor.
New: The songs on Whatfor’s debut, Sooner Late Than Never, were written to work in a basic rock-trio format, driven mostly by Sienkowski’s vocal melodies, which are meandering and catchy at once. At times he also slips in bits of strings, horns, and harpsichord, not to mention harmonies that teeter and swoon like a drunken barbershop quartet. Label Science of Sound will release Sooner on May 20.
Standout Track: The verses of “Home” recall a bouncing mid-tempo swagger that bands often forget about when they’re reaching back to early kinds for inspiration. The chorus opens up to flutters of banjo and a sweetness that’s usually there, but sometimes easy to miss, if only because Whatfor’s throwbacks to ‘60s Brit-pop are so nervously clever and busy.
-Scott Gordon, The Onion A.V. Club
madison, wisconsin musician michael sienkowski (sleeping in the aviary) will next month release his first solo album, called sooner late than never, under the stage name whatfor. the album has a loose, rollicking feel to it, and only one of the twelve tracks present clock in over three minutes, which both salts the fun with a sense of urgency - wait, we're almost through? already? - and effectively guards against an over-stayed welcome.
sienkowski's delivery at times evokes john mcrea of cake; his listed influences include the kinks and, well, that's it, that's the whole list. and in some ways whatfor does have a similar kind of energy & sensibility, irreverent humor. but that's a lofty comparison to start off with. let's say for now that what whatfor's done is put together a quick, fun, impressive debut album.
-Anyone's Guess Blogspot
'I'm A Disgrace' by Whatfor
Maybe I'm doing Whatfor a disservice by reviewing their song “I’m A Disgrace.” After all, the brooding guitar and dissonant cello that define these two minutes of music are a marked departure from the rest of its debut album, Sooner Late Than Never.
I could have rewound this disc by two mere tracks and presented you with "I Want A Girl," a song that perfectly encapsulates the kind of '60s piano pop that dominates this album. You would have heard bright choral harmonies, charming piano melodies and plenty of percussion breaks -- those pregnant pauses that inflected the dawn of pop with bittersweet angst.
But enough about the track that isn't here. I picked "I'm A Disgrace" because more than any other song on the album from the local label Science of Sound, it exposes the quirky talents of Whatfor.
It opens with downtempo guitar and cold, distant vocals akin to Billy Corgan at the height of his Smashing Pumpkins glory.
Eight bars in, light percussion and splashes of piano chords kick in, steering the song away from melancholy and infinite sadness. Over the next 12 bars, the song hangs in an emotional balance, perched to lift off into brightness.
"I'm a Disgrace" never quite makes it to the sky of happiness.
By the chorus, Beth Morgan of Pale Young Gentlemen uses her cello to spread dreamy sadness, the kind Elliott Smith used to make, all over this song.
For the next minute, the verse-chorus pattern repeats. Gently hopeful verses pull the song toward lightness. A cathartic chorus envelopes the listener in comforting darkness.
It's the last thirty seconds of this track that make it memorable. Vocalist Michael Sienkowski starts repeating the mantra, "I'm A Disgrace" in dissonant, anguished tones, while Morgan's cello slowly but surely morphs into a siren. At its crescendo, the song rapidly disintegrates in a fit of emotional distress.
Whatfor is a Sleeping in the Aviary side project, another showcase for the Sienkowski's formidable talent.
Trust me, neither the track nor the album are anything close to a disgrace.
-Rich Albertoni, MadTracks