Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Some Loud Thunder
fter the success of their debut, which sold over 100,000 copies from songwriter and singer Alec Ounsworth’s Bowie-adorned boudoir, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are by now a rich amalgam of ’zine clichés and blog speculations, leading to unavoidable pissing points: how will they handle the dreaded sophomore album pressure? Just who’s going to win the delicate tug-o-war with famed studio-auteur Dave Fridmann? And when the fuck is Ounsworth going to find the Roger Daltrey to his Pete Townshend and free us from his pigeonhawk squeal?
First of all, let’s face it: Ounsworth’s voice is more broken than fragile. It’s orange biohazard to even the indie-heartiest listeners. But it’s not about to change. Here, however, with Fridmann heading up these sessions at his studio in upstate New York, Ounsworth’s blazing falsetto may be the only overt link between their debut and Some Loud Thunder. In an interview with Billboard, he offered this on the process: “We played some of the songs for him and he made some suggestions. The approach remained very similar. He challenged me and us. The idea of the suggestions, that’s why one album is distinguishable from another—and that has to be a result of a collaboration of six people rather than five.” If that response, odd syntax notwithstanding, seems like the conventional bordering on the downright confusing, maybe a listen to Some Loud Thunder, where you can almost feel Fridmann moving Ounsworth and the band at times, will clear it all up.
The band’s infectious enthusiasm and buoyant sense of melody is often shadowed beneath veils of studio affect, which sometimes shears every last element of clarity. Gone, for the most part, are the stark, pearly heartaches of “Sunshine and Clouds” or the lean, almost motorik grooves of “Over and Over Again.” Missing are the crisp cadences of forward motion—almost a strict line from bottom-left to upper-right corner if you charted it by graph—that “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” mastered, or the nectared jangle-pop “In This Home of Ice.”
Instead, the band subsides into self-consciousness, sometimes mistaking awkward instrumental stuffing for studio maturation, an act of self-manipulation that recalls the Strokes “difficult” third album of last year. The opening title cut, for example, sounds like the bass was played in an algae-pool, and the band never really seems to grasp its serpentine melody. Just as the gorgeous “Emily Jean Stock” begins to settle into its chiming roll, Fridmann stuffs his trademarked static-rimmed drums around the edges and distracts from Ounsworth’s delivery, not to mention the masturbatory noises and squiggles of sound pushed up in the mix. Elsewhere, “Arm and Hammer”’s dusty-45 feel is Ounsworth’s attempt to recapture his beloved Robert Johnson-scratch on the modern LP, but it stands out as the worst b-side to make the final album, while on closer “Five Easy Pieces,” his vocals are battered with enough reverb and dissonance to make Kevin Shields cry uncle.
But that ain’t the whole story here. When Fridmann simply coaxes out Ounsworth’s desire to extend himself melodically instead of leading him by the leash, some of Thunder’s pop abstractions stand toe-to-toe with the more standard fare of the debut. The guitar squalls on “Love Song No. 7” cushion instead of smothering its carefree billowing, as the band surrounds Ounsworth in a dream-timed waltz, and “Satan Said Dance”’s indie-disco makes ether of its rhythmic beeping and splinters of noise without diminishing its vitality. Not surprisingly, perhaps their best recording to date, “Mama, Won’t You Keep Them Castles In the Air and Burning?” most adeptly balances their newly arcane sense of sound with their limber songwriting. It’s crudely infectious, looking back to their debut’s keen sense of anthem. For the most part, it’s just that collective animation—the sense that their songs could fill any three-person room with a gush of energy surely come from thirty—that’s missing from Some Loud Thunder. Perhaps it’s too easy to blame Fridmann for these new distractions, but I can’t imagine Ounsworth and the band leaping ahead this way without him. Here’s to hoping that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah move backward more lithely than they progress.