Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
By Alan Baban | 20 September 2011
Easy to criticise this one as a mish-mash of ill-conceived production choices and underwhelming, frankly boring songs executed with precision and delivered in a monotonal bleat by a frontman who is three blue face tattoos and a domesticated haircut from transforming into the next Michael Stipe. Something bad has happened, is the general rule when your previously “cool” cool-band is drawing comparisons to a past-his-peak bald sudser, but then, that’s life—things do change. But then confusingly, sometimes, things don’t change at all. Mostly, though, things change for the absolute worse.
Hysterical is largely being perceived as a change for the absolute worse. It’s the type of ballyhooed comeback album that so exquisitely and meticulously plays into its detractors’ hands it almost renders the critical process rote. You want a band to basically shit on its legacy?—then step right up for the show! Because Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are the band for you; because here, after a widely-celebrated eponymous debut and a divisive follow-up record, the band has effectively drawn a line in the sand (that line is long and a lot of affecting shit is written in cursive on it); because the new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record sounds—with the unlikely assistance of uber-producer John Congleton—nothing much like a new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record should, though it does sound like a really poignant, really authentic work of ambitious alternative-rock with all the trimmings left intact: big choruses, a smooth-going rhythm section, and lyrics that are as equally striking as they are occasionally silly.
What Hysterical isn’t, though, is musically hysterical. It’s an odd, slightly discomfiting move for a band whose initial appeal lay in re-casting David Byrne as an ultra-dedicated drunk with a harpoon—rather than his usual role as the freak with a Filofax—and then sending that dude well-armed and out to sea where the the indie-rock whales fuck and eat each other and sometimes get harpooned. On their debut album, CHYSY did a sure good job of trend-conscious harpooneering; the record is a modern classic, henpecking from all your favourite old records—some grains of yodeling Jeff Mangum here, a swish take on Talking Heads’ doubletriplecrossing melodies there—though the fact stands that, derivate as it sounds after all these years, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (2005) is an example of the best, the highest form of musical derivation. That is, it exalts near-plagiarism to an art-form.
So, if like me you were able to get through the first five minutes of realizing you’ve heard all these songs before, in one form or another, then you soon also realized that you’ve never heard them played nearly as well—or as cripplingly flamboyantly—as they were on that set. At a recent live show in London, the crowd went apoplectic at nearly everything played from the debut; every song on it is a little violent uprising. It set the template, acting as the filter through which the rest of the band’s catalogue has inevitably and rather harshly been judged. Which does little good for Some Loud Thunder (2007), the band’s sadistic, audience-baiting, experimental-but-ultimately-rather-awesome update of its core sound, and the second record that divided its fanbase. It also does little good for Hysterical, which, in direct opposition to what its title would suggest, is a technically phenomenal, conservative record from a bunch of guys who know exactly what they’re doing.
CMG editor-at-large Aaron Newell is bang-on when he says that Hysterical “plays like Radiohead’s Pablo Honey (1993) and The Bends (1995) B-sides…even the intense parts are delivered as the defeated/pummelled Yorke would’ve, which makes it even more Radioheady.” I’d slash that to add radio-ready (oh, snap), since this is by far the band’s most pristine album; “Same Mistake” arguably sounds a bit like the Killers. Elsewhere, Alec Ounsworth does a fine job in writing some of the best songs of his career: different as they may sound from the usual CHYSY fare, “In a Motel” and “The Witness’s Dull Surprise” are two of this year’s most moving ballads—the former languishing in acoustic torpor before showing signs of surprising recovery with a calm and moving, string-assisted finale, whereas network TV people, if they’re listening, should have a field-say with “Dull Surprise.” The song sounds like a coffin strapped to the roof of a moving vehicle, except the coffin is filled with flowers, and nobody’s died, and in fact the vehicle can do special things like fly and stop wars. It’s a really good, romantic, rainswept song. I imagine it soundtracking the final scene in a romantic comedy where a would-be groom suddenly decides that he wants to leave his fiancé for a robotic lawn mower, but then eventually he changes his mind.
There are more songs as good, or as efficient, as that on Hysterical, and all of them are worth your time of day. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s third album might not set the world on fire, but it’s a great little record in its own right. And that may just be the very best kind of change we could have hoped for.