Right out of the gate, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has been a love-them-or-hate-them band. Either you like Alex Ounsworth's yelpy David Byrnisms or you don't. With their second album, Some Loud Thunder, little has changed on that front. Well, one thing has changed: it's less fun to debate whether they're worth loving or hating. Their first, self-titled album was packed with hooks—that guitar line from "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth," the chorus from "Is This Love?", the whole of "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood"; if your buddy told you he hated that voice, you could at least counter that the record was chock full of earworms. It was spare, brief, memorable. The band sounded unlike anyone else and didn't make a big stink about it. Sure, they had a lot of personality quirks, but not a lot of pretension.
The frustrating thing about Some Loud Thunder is that the quirks have been pushed further to the fore, putting the band dangerously on the line of pretense. The melodies are still there, but they seem to be intentionally suppressed beneath poor production or arrangements that seem unnecessarily tricky—not complex, not particularly interesting, just tricky. "Emily Jean Stock" is a good example—the vocal melodies and multitracked backing harmonies are present from beginning to end but the rest of the instrumentation enters and exits throughout, never allowing the track to cohere into a song. The best compliment the song warrants is "interesting." It has the potential to be compelling, but it never actually is. More aggravating is that the album seems willfully underproduced. I have no problem with lo-fi—some of my favorite albums were recorded on 4-tracks—but Some Loud Thunder often sounds like the band went into a real studio and then purposely made it sound like shit. The most blatant offender is the first, title track, which sounds a notch above Real Audio quality.
None of this is to say that the album is a complete failure. "Goodbye to the Mother and the Cover," with its revolving arpeggios and sliding guitar lines, is one of the few songs to let the instruments offer something memorable beyond Ounsworth's vocal idiosyncrasies. The brief "Arm and Hammer" starts aimlessly before morphing into a sort of punk-acoustic mantra. And "Yankee Go Home" is the closest to the sound of the first album: the band is wholly present, the vocals aren't distorted, and the melody, with its one short falsetto note, is great. It feels natural; you can picture the whole band in a room enjoying themselves.
The same can't be said for the rest of the album. It's curious: I'm attracted to it, I do keep putting it on, but I never just sit back and enjoy it. It's like I'm listening to it just to figure it out. And I'm not quite certain that CYHSY have enough depth to really warrant being figured out. The last album I bought that seemed to beg to be analyzed—yet still pretended to have some kind of aspiration to pop accessibility—was TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain. The more I listened to it, trying to understand why it was so dense, why they insisted on piling on the vocal tracks and ambient sound, the more I resented it. It is possible, of course, to make an album that subverts or explodes pop tropes, that aims for texture as much as melody. Hell, the world would have stopped talking about Radiohead a decade ago if it wasn't. But CYHSY (and TVotR, for that matter), don't seem to have really thought it through. Distorting the vocals and allowing the drum tracks to fall in and out is not really subversive; it's sabotage.
All this sounds curmudgeonly, I know. I'm not really asking CYHSY to make their first album over again, nor to restrict themselves to a verse-chorus-verse structure. But Some Loud Thunder is nevertheless frustrating because a terrific album is in there—I can hear it, buried underneath the production. It's as if they made a great record and then, in a self-conscious moment of doubt, slabbed dirt all over it and half-obliterated the songs. What you're left with is something not very experimental and not very accessible. It's the worst of both worlds.
This weekend I was watching my current guilty pleasure TV show, Dancelife on MTV. I love it if only for the moment in each episode when a character hits his or her breaking point and Just! Has! To Dance! "all alone" in the studio, from multiple camera angles.
And speaking of guilty pleasures, during one of those moments when they show a brief clip of an actual video, I was surprised to see, for the first time in
possibly a decade, something I hadn't heard of before that also didn't sound
like anything else on the channel. Someone from Europe named
Mika—here's his myspace page. He describes himself like this:
Beck via Queen and Elton John and a touch of Rufus W. Would love to
blab about Harry Nilsson but I fear no one will know what I'm talking
about... but if you do, you'll know what I mean.
it actually sounds exactly like someone took those groups and stirred
them all up. (Well, I hear approximately zero Beck, but the rest are dead on.) It's campy, pretty gay in a jazz hands kind of way, and really catchy, "Grace Kelly" [mp3] in particular. (Apparently this song is currently the #1 single in the UK right now, for whatever that's worth.) I've been listening to it pretty much nonstop all weekend.
I'm curious to hear more; one of the other songs on the myspace page sounds heavily influenced by the Beatles—or, as my brilliant wife put it, heavily influenced by a band from the 1970s that was heavily influenced by the Beatles—and the other song is too house-y for me. If he leans too much on dance beats for his full length (hitting the US at the end of March), I'll probably pass. But it the rest of his album is really flamboyant power pop, I might love it.