Hop in your imaginary time machine and take a trip back to the year 2005. At the rate our technology is moving, quite a bit has changed in the last 6 years. Music blogs, for one, were still in their relative infancy, a select few becoming tastemakers for so many. Like weeds though, more kept sprouting up every day, wanting their own piece of the pie and trying to earn some legitimacy by breaking new artists on their own. Sometimes it worked, often it did not. One of the few bands to actually gain traction from those early bits of experimentation was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. A five piece from straight out of Brooklyn, CYHSY were pretty much the ultimate DIY-ers, recording and distributing their own music without any assistance. After passing along a few free mp3s from their self-titled debut album to some influential music blogs, their popularity suddenly exploded, to the point where they couldn’t really handle all the orders that were coming in. To their credit, they never asked for any help once their popularity skyrocketed, and plenty of labels and distributors came calling. In one of the first cases of good hype going bad though, with their second record “Some Loud Thunder” Clap Your Hands Say Yeah chose to throw a little variety into their whimsical and upbeat indie pop sound, incorporating elements of prog-rock, dance rock, and world music into the melting pot and disappointing a lot of fans in the process. There were some good songs on that sophmore effort, just not enough to keep a positive word of mouth going about the band. So initial negative sentiment began to catch on and soon the band that had been lovingly embraced by the forward-thinking indie music community was now left for dead on the side of the road.
After briefly touring in support of their second album, CYHSY vanished for awhile, only playing a random show now and then while reportedly working hard on their third full length. Rumors of a hiatus emerged, particularly as frontman Alec Ounsworth put out a solo record as well as a second, different album as part of a new project called Flashy Python. Both records were released within months of one another in 2009 and were subsequently dismissed in about that same time frame. A couple of the guys also formed a new project called Uninhabitable Mansions with Au Revoir Simone’s Annie Hart – something that started as a band and art project but eventually became a record label. They’ve released records from Pursesnatchers and Radical Dads in the last year. CYHSY guitarist Robbie Guertin plays drums in Radical Dads, and their debut record was produced by CYHSY drummer Sean Greenhalgh. Realigning ourselves to the present day, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah suddenly and dramatically reappeared last May by announcing they’d be releasing their third album, their first in four years, this September. An mp3 for the song “Same Mistake” was unleashed a month later and quickly began to stoke the flames of hype once again for the band, with early comments seeming to suggest the guys had rediscovered the magic that earned them all that praise in the first place. While a great new song or two certainly bodes well for an entire record, the one lesson to be learned from this hype-a-minute world is to avoid making snap judgments until you’ve heard the whole thing. As it turns out, titling the record “Hysterical” was an inspired choice, primarily because it is exactly that, only we’re laughing at the band instead of with them.
Okay, so “Hysterical” is not really a laughably bad record. First single and opening track “Same Mistake” is actually remarkably good, with Ounsworth’s trademark woozy, off-key wail and a chorus bordering on anthemic anchoring the whole thing in place and reminding you just why this band earned so much hype in 2005. Yes, they deserve to continue making music, provided that music remains lightheartedly catchy. Yet it’s notable that in that very first track Ounsworth espouses, “We’ll make the same mistakes”, not trying to but actually implying they may still screw up this second chance. The crux of the band’s problems lies with the unerring sense that they can just work from their 2005 template and achieve similar success. Tastes and trends evolve from year to year, and unless you’re one of the few bands whose sound is only best described as “timeless”, you’re going to need to prove things have changed from record to record. At least “Some Loud Thunder” took some serious (and arguably too many) chances in the hopes of broadening the CYHSY sound established on their debut. As a contrast, “Hysterical” holds steady on the hope that if you liked songs such as “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” and “Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away”, you’re going to equally enjoy this new material. The good news is that nothing on the new album sounds like an outright failure. Taken completely on their own, every track has some merits to it and is effectively charming. Put them together though, and you’ll notice a glaring sameness to the whole thing. Whether it’s the 3 minutes of “Maniac” or the 7+ minutes of “Adam’s Plane”, the band operates at a cruising altitude that while nice is also supremely safe. Taken in one massive lump, you’ll likely come away feeling the album was nothing short of a delight, but identifying specific highlights or hooks will suddenly prove exceedingly tough. At least moments like the fuzzed out guitar solo over the last half of “Into Your Alien Arms” and the spacey string section on “In A Motel” stand out specifically because they’re small breaks in the pattern. That doesn’t automatically make them better songs as a result.
What “Hysterical” ultimately ends up being is sad. Many of the songs aren’t upbeat in nature even if they have a spring in their step instrumentally. In addition to that, you wind up feeling just a little sad that a band with so much going for them initially have seemingly become tied up in the notion that they can reclaim their status as an important and meaningful band simply by repeating the formula that made them a success from the start. Even if they’d crafted a mixture of their delightfully catchy self-titled debut and their last album “Some Loud Thunder”, by no means would that have earned them any greater shot at the good graces of the hype-a-minute world we live in today. Bands that pander don’t earn a spot at the exclusive table – it’s the ones that take risks and are able to prove their worth via innovation that get the praise. That’s an extremely tough thing to do, and I for one don’t envy any band trying to make something of themselves these days. The game has changed since 2005, so you either adapt or die. With any luck, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will find a way to do the former rather than the latter.