The Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Dilemma

The story of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is one we’ve seen countless times before, and just as unfair as with many other cases–band debuts with huge buzz and overnight success, becoming a shorthand for the Hot New Thing, difficult followup alienates the tastemakers and the band’s profile begins to dwindle, band now exists in shadow of former glory and is now shorthand for “hey, weren’t we crazy back in [insert year]?”  Granted, since we’re talking about indie rock bands in the new millennium, the full scale of their trajectory is of a much smaller scale than previous decades, but it’s a familiar pattern nonetheless.  Even we here at Rust Is Just Right, fans of the band that we are, have added insult to injury by letting their most recent release pass by without much comment, letting it get lost amid a sea of other stellar releases that week.

However, since the newest iteration of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is set to play Portland this Sunday, now is the perfect time to correct our previous omission and attempt to put the band’s career in context, and also to help give the band a needed reassessment.

The story of the unexpected success of the band’s debut is still remembered today, as the band was able to sell over a hundred thousand copies of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah even without the benefit of record label support, based purely on the power of word-of-mouth and shares through music blogs.  The album eventually made its way into the hands of various critics, and with a helpful push particularly from Pitchfork, the band became indie darlings and were selling out big halls while at the same time individually mailing out copies of their record.  To give you an idea of their success at the time, the opener on their tour was The National, who were supporting their just-released classic Alligator.  Today, it’s a different story, as The National can headline festivals while CYHSY plugs away at tiny clubs, but there’s no hard feelings–Matt Berninger does a guest vocal spot on the band’s new album.

While the story remains compelling, many might be surprised that the actual music still holds up years later.  Clap Your Hands Say Yeah didn’t exactly spawn a legion of odd-voiced, delicate indie-dance rock imitators, so their unique sound stands out even today.  The sparse arrangements serve the songs well, and the melodies remain strong and filled with hooks.  If I hear “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood” or “In This Home On Ice” pop up on my iTunes, I can still sing along with ease.

It was with their next album, Some Loud Thunder, that the band began to lose support; you can probably pinpoint the exact moment, which is when the heavily-distorted title track opens the album.  I believe that initial impression turned off most people, as many probably reached for their album once it started playing and asked “Did I get a warped copy?”  However, I personally eventually found some charm to that abrasive opening, and admired the ballsiness of the band’s maneuver to dare people who were merely hoping to catch the tail end of a trend to keep listening.   The opening lines are also a brilliant response to the incredible hype that the band had received: “All this talking, you’d think I’d have something to say, but I’m just talking.”  There was no hidden agenda; the guys were just interested in making music.

The album also features a couple of the group’s best singles, the twisted-but-goofy “Satan Said Dance” and the dramatic “Yankee Go Home”, but they failed to gain traction outside of a devoted fanbase.  Otherwise, the album was filled with dreamy textures and various sound experiments, which work well if one is committed to listening to the album but can present problems for the casual listener.  But when you strip away all the extra layers, there are still beautiful songs below the surface.  For example, here’s a gorgeous if haunting solo acoustic performance of “Underwater (You and Me)”.

After the intentionally confrontational Some Loud Thunder, the band regrouped with the bouncy and fun Hysterical, trading experimental rock for more keyboards and a dance beat.  It’s certainly an enjoyable record, and one that works extremely well live, though only a handful songs leave any sort of lasting impression.  “Same Mistake” is an energetic rave-up, and “Adam’s Plane” is a nice dramatic ballad that builds to an epic finish, but in between those two songs the album merely seems to float from one track to the next.

Even with a pivot toward more crowd-pleasing material, the band’s audience continued to shrink.  During the Some Loud Thunder tour, they sold out the Roseland Theater, one of the biggest venues in Portland; for the Hysterical tour, they downgraded significantly to the Hawthorne Theatre.  Despite this, the band’s performance actually improved, as the smaller size of the venues seemed to be a more comfortable fit.  The band was also helped by the fact that the people who showed up to see them were actual devoted fans, who had a great time providing an energetic response to the material and dancing along to the music, and yelling out the lyrics as needed.

After a few years off, the band returns in a radically different form, existing in recording form as basically a duo.  Alec Ounsworth and his distinctive voice remain as he tackles most of the guitars and keyboards as well, with some help from drummer Sean Greenhalgh.  The result is a careful, more subdued record that falls more in line with recent bedroom-pop-like efforts, and one can sense an element of restraint throughout the album.  The result is an unusual combination of an air of calm mixed with a bit of unease, as the sounds themselves are soothing but they’re seemingly pushing against an unseen force to prevent a full explosion of emotion.  Keyboards are a more dominant presence on the album, with single-note guitar lines cutting through to provide some edge and movement at particular moments, such as in the single “As Always” (embedded above) or to propel the momentum forward, as in “Coming Down”.

Overall, it’s an intriguing step forward for the band, and one that shows that while the band may be content to have a lower profile, the important thing is that they are still committed to releasing new music.  Looking back, it was clear that the “living room” tour that the band did a few months prior to the release of Only Run was an indication of this new direction, and perhaps a sign of things to come.  The band has shifted to an even smaller venue this time as it passes through Portland, as they perform within the intimate confines of Mississippi Studios.  But if previous events are any indication, it will be an even better experience.

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