Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (Self-released)
This album isn’t really that good. But I think that’s something we’ve all known since our first listen back in the summer. Oh, how Clap Your Hands Say Yeah [CYHSY] is such torture for we who strive to be cutting-edge by shunning the self-same hip underground affections that make us cutting-edge. Do we hate CYHSY because they’re popular (well, popular in our little corner of the world) and they’re unoriginal and they’re somewhat annoying and they lack the use of sampling and electronic ambient loops and chamber strings, or do we love them because they’re unoriginal and they’re “annoying” (you say annoying, I say honest) and their lack of sampling and electronic ambient loops and chamber strings guarantees that our elitist friends won’t like them, and so in our love we’ll make popular so popular again that it becomes unpopular and therefore those who love the popular will be more exclusive than the elitists. And that will be us. Unless everyone has this idea. Does Pitchfork like this album? Fuck. They gave it 9.0. I think I’ve just criticized myself out of existence.
I digress. The real issue here is that, if for no other reason, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah should be on everyone’s top ten (or seven) indie list by default. This album’s sold 40,000 copies without a label. Before a few months ago CYHSY had no distributor and were sealing and stamping all of these puppies themselves. Their popularity spread rapidly through word-of-mouth and internet relays, which most people fantasize is how all independent artists rise but this is definitely not the case. For a band to reach this level of success without label-supported promotion, without a big-name producer and without a song on a television commercial is a rare feat indeed. These days indie has become a Zen plateau rather than a definitive production quality; In 2005 CYHSY emerged as a good kick in the pants to all of those who don product placement in the name of independent-can-never-be-what-it-was.
But do I only like this album by default? Not really. There’s a fun mesh of sounds here that fit together strangely yet not disjunctively. And yes, bandleader Alec Ounsworth can deny all he wants that he is consciously influenced by particular artists, the fact remains that even if only subconsciously, CYHSY is a product of New Order and Talking Heads and The Who and even Bob Dylan. Maybe because he doesn’t realize he’s picked up all of these various influences, Ounsworth makes no effort to disguise them and the result is not a smooth, spicy blend, but a rough, accidentally exotic gallimaufry stew like the one grandpa used to make when grandma was out playing bingo. They’re just so weird. And not in a bizarre, revolutionary, experimental, post-blah blah blah way. They’re weird in a retarded way. I feel bad for laughing but sometimes I just have to.
The album opens with the carny organ of “Clap Your Hands!” and Ounsworth talk-singing nonsense like some sideshow emcee atop his soapbox. On most tunes he sounds like a whiny but eloquent drunk, except on “Gimme Some Salt” when he makes an attempt at lazy sass that may or may not be earnest. This uncertainty is part of what makes this album amusing; either CYHSY is so oblivious to its absurdity, or so conscious of it, that we want to be in on the joke and play along.
This isn’t to say that the album is laughable; indeed there are qualities to it that are so understated that they shine. While Ounsworth’s voice is neurotic, its unpolished quality has the capability, like on the bleak jangle “In This Home on Ice,” to ring out in an childlike weep. The tune carries traces of social criticism: “Should I trust all the rust that’s on TV/I guess with some distaste I disagree/With quite a fashionable dispassion for/ the dispossessed under-stressed/gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme.” This gravity is not rare on the disc. Underneath the fuzz bass and happy keys and jam band harmonica, “Heavy Metal” is a song of loss and confusion that’s not poetic but nonetheless genuine. “This Tidal Wave of Young Blood” is an anti-war song more successful than any somber, straightforward homily released this year. The tune is sarcastic, but not in an overbearing way; Ounsworth sings, “We are men who stay alive/Who send your children away now/We are calling from a tower/Expressing what must be/Everyone’s opinion.” The message is disguised in the cheerful acoustic guitar romp, the electric guitar line, sparse and distant like an eighties ballad, and Ounsworth’s robotic voice. And just so we won’t think CYHSY has gone sober and didactic in the end, the song and album ends with one of its dumbest stunts: Ounsworth repeating the words “child stars” continuously for forty-seven seconds and then ending on the cliché, “with their sex, and drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.”
With a mix of earnestness and kitsch the album lacks any feeling of being contrived. Mostly it’s dark little dance tunes, like “The Skin Off My Yellow Country Teeth,” which sounds like sedated eighties pop, and “Is This Love?” whose fluttering keyboards and chaotic chorus is British invasion meets prog punk meets classic indie rock. These fellows draw from so many different areas that they can’t be labeled as copiers of one act, or one scene. And they’re off key just enough that, even though their sound is derivative from all these other places, it’s deliciously jarring and attention-grabbing.
So I doubt that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is going to revolutionize the modern music scene; however, there’s definitely potential for them to grow as a band and stretch the limits of artistic lunacy. Apparently Ounsworth wrote most of the tracks before the band was even together, so it will be interesting to hear what the next effort sounds like with the input of the other members and with even more layers of influence. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is I think really just a peak at Clap Your Hands Say Yeah; it’s an audacious bud that in a year or so we’ll either forget accidentally or remember pompously. Either way, in 2005, it’s made its mark.