Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: "The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth"
By Christopher Alexander | 27 July 2005
In the interests of keeping feelings divorced from the serious business of criticism, tonight’s track review forms a First Amendment style wall separating religious emotions and statist critique.
Far away from West Virginia/I’ll try New York City/Explaining that the sky holds you in. Some fun facts about this author: like a number of people my age, I’m not from the city I live in now. I grew up in New Jersey, on the other side of the country. This means a few things: primarily, that I’m a transplant, uprooted from familiar and comfortable terrain into better soil, so that I might grow stronger. But New Jersey’s ghost still hovers overhead; it’s a stamp of identity, and as such it’s become a base mode of operation, a way of approaching, disseminating and filtering new information.
All of the above is a long-winded way of saying that, no matter how improved the new digs are, sometimes I feel like I don’t fit in. Now, I have no idea if Alec Ounsworth is really from West Virginia or not, although a line like “know the emptiness of talking blue the same old sheep” articulates a distinctly rural feeling of ennui and frustration. What I do know is that if he’s “haunted by a past [he]
just can’t see anymore,” then maybe a city with a claustrophobic skyline isn’t the haven for which he was hoping. Or, as James Baldwin would put it, “It turned out the question of who I was was not solved because [once] I had removed myself from [the situation] those questions became interior, and I dragged them across the ocean with me.”
All of this is necessarily conjecture, of course, since bereft of a lyric sheet I haven’t the foggiest idea what he says in over half the song. Ounsworth famously invokes Thom Yorke the way a Woody Allen drama references Wild Strawberries. It’s all hanging vowels and cracking notes in a range usually reserved for Neil Young. This denotes vulnerability and authenticity (which is universally regarded as good) but also hampers diction and intelligibility (which has been subject to debate throughout rock’s entire history). Still, it’s inviting, and if the song doesn’t paint a clear emotional picture, it inarguably has a clear emotional intent. The inherent obscuritanism becomes a deft move, planned or not. It lets the listener approach this song on her own terms, luring instead of clobbering them.
This “emotional intent” is given no small amount of drive by the band’s performance. It starts off harmless enough: an analogue synth, disco drum beats, a bassline played in the upper register. (Did we mention this band was from New York? No? That’s because they’re from Philadelphia, but, you know…). Then we’re introduced to a guitar line Isaac Brock’s lawyers might be interested in hearing: harmonics accentuate every other downbeat, and are pulled a half-step up for good measure. What’s great about the songwriting here is that the spot reserved for the capital-C chorus is replaced instead with uncanny dynamic precision. The guitars explode into uncontained jangle after Ounsworth’s verses. The rhythm section never varies its approach, but as the song proceeds it’s clear that this is counterpoint, not post-punk pastiche. It provides the perfect propulsion to blast through a sky that holds you in, which is perhaps the kind of thing that needs to be felt rather than reasoned.