[25 September 2011]
It’s been almost five years since Clap Your Hands Say Yeah cut a record, and that was two years after the five Brooklynites made waves across the indie scene for pulling in six figures off their self-produced debut album that they distributed all by their lonesome. Now a tale of indie folklore, the quintet have been raised up on a pedestal as large as the Sears Tower for their unorthodox method of achieving success. In the dawn of iTunes and BitTorrent downloading, CYHSY didn’t even use the In Rainbows technique of online offering, but rather sold actual physical copies at shows and on independent music websites. Since then, startup bands around the nation have turned into the same starry-eyed dreamers that starving Hollywood actors bear, convinced they’ll make it big off the same technique of do-it-yourself vigor and self-promotion.
Yet none have neared the same success as CYHSY.
It’s this story that makes the quintet so difficult to comprehend musically since their debut was not only a profound message of self-motivation and artistic endeavor, but also a declaration of what the record industry had become just five years after Napster’s uprising: with less money and higher demand for big-name acts, why not just go do it on your own? It became the motto for 2005 and forward and granted CYHSY near revolutionary status amongst indie rock’s critics and followers.
Now almost seven years (and a five-year hiatus that had everyone questioning whether they had disbanded) later, CYHSY have put out their third self-produced LP. Unlike the past two records, Hysterical takes a much more modest approach with accessible melodies and straightforward rock, yielding simplicity over the complex instrumentation the band’s come to be known for. The intricate layered songwriting of guitarists Alec Ounsworth, Robbie Guertin, and Lee Sargent isn’t as present here, which will no doubt disappoint many fans. For a band with enough talent to dodge a record label’s shortcomings, Hysterical could easily come off as lazy. For instance, opening track, “Same Mistake”, lacks the stop-gap production flourishes and bass thickness that the other two openers took pride in, while the acoustic-driven, “In a Motel”, resembles an Oasis B-side off (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Screech guitar solos, nasty bass licks, and percussion overdub are nowhere to be found this time around; the remains of “Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away” seem to be a glimmer in the Brooklyn rockers’ eyes.
So with that said, it should come as no surprise that this is a commercial album. Whether or not CYHSY intended for that, there’s no denying the pop flair on all 12 of these tracks. The formula of “soft verse-loud chorus” that’s seduced radio DJs for decades is so apparent here that it’d be impossible to imagine Ounsworth and Co. weren’t dreaming of bigger things the past five years. Even the third track, “Misspent Youth”, rips off radio barnstormers Kings of Leon’s “Back Down South” so much to a T, it begs the question of whether CYHSY were actually even studying the formula for commercial success.
Yet despite all these remarks, it can’t go unnoticed that this is the quintet’s most full-sounding production to date. That’s not to say it showcases the most talent (it’s the weakest technically), but it is the band’s most cohesive effort. What their self-titled roided up on with studious song craft it also lacked in steady flow, and Some Loud Thunder’s forced attempt to replicate its predecessor’s ornate tones forced it into weaker territory. On Hysterical, though, CYHSY took a leap that none of their fans ever expected of them, a leap that veered them in a much more dangerous direction: safety. Because for a band like them, chasing commercial stardom does either one of two things: A) lands you in the hot seat fellow Brooklyn friends Vampire Weekend enjoyed this past year, or B) it absolutely kills your career. Remember, Ounsworth doesn’t have the voice of a singer who plays amphitheaters; he’s an acquired taste that took a while to warm up to the small clubs of the five boroughs. So this move is, in fact, a very daring maneuver for the band, and that can’t go unrewarded.
Is Hysterical radio-friendly? Yes. Is it a bit of a letdown after a five-year wait? Maybe. But is it boring? Absolutely not. After all, it’s the album that might launch CYHSY’s career to stratospheric heights. Half the songs could take over Sirius XMU; “Maniac” could be more overplayed than “Cousins”, and wouldn’t that be kind of awesome for these guys? Wouldn’t ten years down the road it be an amazing ending to an already mythic story? Just think about that, and if it still doesn’t compute, remember: despite your possible disappointment in them, they’ll still always be that band that sold six figures worth of albums without a record label.