When Clap Your Hands Say Yeah appeared in 2005, Alec Ounsworth’s jerky, punky indie troupe were lauded by many as the missing link between Talking Heads and The Rapture, their unique zeitgeist-surfing mixture of dance, art school nonchalance and ragged guitars sending hipsters and critics alike into paroxysms of joy.
This, their sophomore record, comes laden with the kind of nervous tension that can destroy groups. After flying in under the radar with their first long-player, with bloggers creating the kind of publicity that A&R departments can only dream of, CYHSY have it all to do -create a record that sells by the bucketload, and try and stick to their alternative guns to appease hardened fans.
It’s a confused tactic, and one the band seldom seem to pull off here, veering dangerously between ‘deliberately difficult’ and’ commercially acceptable’, often within the same song. Much of the blame should be placed squarely at producer Dave Friedman’s door – a fine knob twiddler in his own right – who desperately over-produces most of the tracks here into bizarre and convoluted shapes. When he’s working with songwriters as good as The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, it’s an excellent combination. Here, with a band still finding their feet, and desperate to remind the world to knowhow alternative they are, it’s just plain annoying.
For example, instead of, say, opening their make or break record with a stonking pop number, first track Some Loud Thunder is wilfully, bizarrely obtuse – a half decent Strokes-soundalike that Friedman renders practically unlistenable with ear-bleeding vocal distortion. While CYHSY may be giggling like schoolboys at their cleverness, it’ll simply end up with legions of confused fans desperately fiddling with the treble controls on their iPods. Similarly, the otherwise pretty well-structured Emily Jean Stock is ruined by Ounsworth’s vocals, warbled like a hillbilly who’s had too much moonshine. It’s almost as if the band have set out to intentionally separate the wheat from the chaff, the kids who enjoyed This House On Ice from the last record are picked off like flies with the opening salvo.
Only lead single Satan Said Dance is anything near the tone to the first record – all jerky guitar cuts and electronic beeps – but there isn’t the sense of warmth and low-fi fun that typified their eponymous debut. For a five minute single, there are an awful lot of fancy production techniques thrown in to what is, essentially, a RaptureB-side.
In fact it’s the end of the record that impresses most – Yankee Go Home is easily one of the best tracks on the record, despite the vocals having the uncanny ability to render the uninitiated to screaming agony in a matter of seconds. And while there is hardly anything here that matches the heart-tugging frazzled beauty of first album highlight Over And Over Again (Lost and Found), closer Five EasyPieces runs it close – a romantic bath of fuzzy, underwater vocals and unintelligible yelps from Ounsworth.
It’s a striking end to an album that doesn’t so much fail to deliver, as forgets to post the thing in the first place. There are moments here that remind you exactly why you fell in love with the band first time around, like gorgeous ballad Underwater (You and Me), but, with too many ideas swimming between the band and their producer, this album is too much of a mess to be seen as a worthy follow-up to such a great debut. If they peg everything back, and employ Danger Mouse on the next record, the next one could be very interesting.