[21 October 2009]
If you’re a bit confused by all the Alec Ounsworth news floating around, here it is straight: the leader of the on-hiatus Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is releasing two records, under different names, in the space of a month or so—one as Alec Ounsworth, and one under the moniker Flashy Python, which has been self-released on his website. I’m not sure how his record company feels about this, vis-à-vis cannibalization of the market, etc., especially because Ounsworth’s distinctive voice diminishes many of the musical differences. Plus, Flashy Python includes members of the Walkmen, Man Man, and Dr. Dog, making it a sort of Philadelphia indie supergroup.
Furthermore, Mo Beauty sounds like a less current Ounsworth than the on-edge, desperate character of the Flashy Python material. The artist has admitted a good portion of the material on the Anti- record he dug up from an archive of previously-sketched songs. So it’s tempting to shuffle Mo Beauty into a corner as a minor, not particularly representative, work. A comparison of Mo Beauty’s “Obscene Queen Bee #2” to Flashy Python’s original “Obscene Queen Bee” highlights easy differences. One throbs with a hard-edged synth staccato and a reedy backing chorus; the other plays like an easy-listening version, scrubbed clean. Ounsworth’s attempt to imbue his voice with some tenderness takes the form of slurred articulation, and he ends up sounding just, well, drunk.
But there’s more to Mo Beauty than an uppity Philly rock guy messing around with some great session musicians in New Orleans. The clean production and traditional arrangements (everything in its right place) allow both moments of tender beauty and exuberant fanfare. “When You’ve No Eyes”, an example of the former, closes the album; “South Philadelphia (Drug Days)”, with its whooped chorus, struts forward with a refreshing vivacity. Occasionally, as on the opening track “Modern Girl (…With Scissors)”, the songs even approach Neutral Milk Hotel’s brassy power.
Unfortunately, though, these tracks also highlight the uneasy marriage of the Ounsworth vocal inflection with this backing sound. I guess what I’m saying is, Mo Beauty doesn’t really sound like Alec Ounsworth’s album. In appropriating the New Orleans story and the New Orleans musicians, the artist is left with what was previously a strength: desperate bombast. This strategy worked for Cat Power, sure, but then her sweet, breathy delivery could float over most anything and win us over. Instead, Ounsworth must convince us he’s gained some unmissable insight, which will keep our ears pricked to somehow ferret through this resistive delivery. What we get is, “This country burns with its own dumb might”, which has its own poetry, I suppose, and “I’m a stranger to myself / Are you a stranger to me too? Don’t tell me” (the last bit a hurried addition out of time with the song), which has far less.
In the end, what rescues Mo Beauty is self-awareness. In the gorgeous ballad “Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (Song for New Orleans)”, Ounsworth asks rhetorically “How can I claim New Orleans?” That’s just it; this is no “New Orleans record”, and the singer-songwriter’s not on some grand mission to impart a new revelation about America’s uniquely tragic city. It’s an Alec Ounsworth record. After all the hype has leaked away, we’re back to a simple idea: a guy with a solid backing band, some nice ideas, and a voice that you’re going to hate or love.