[15 April 2007]
Why do today’s musicians believe that an album must have more than ten tracks? Dylan was content to have nine tracks on Highway 61 Revisited. Television’s Marquee Moon only had eight, while the Velvet Underground got away with having only six on White Light / White Heat. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are clearly influenced by these three bands, among others, but they failed to realise that they don’t need 11 tracks for the sophomore effort to qualify as an album. As a result, midway through Some Loud Thunder is a song that could only charitably be called filler. “Upon Encountering the Crippled Elephant” is just over a minute of oom-pah accordion noodling, and is nothing but a waste of time and space.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self titled debut was a promising slab of indie-rock, hyped by MP3 bloggers the world over, eventually gathering enough momentum to make it into the indie charts and attracting the endorsement of the usually less than proactive Rolling Stone. It was a commendable achievement for the band, who at the release of the album, was selling most of the copies through its website. The album was quirky, summery, but best of all, it was vulnerable. Lead singer Alec Ounsworth’s voice was, and still is, probably the most irritating voice in rock and roll ... nasally, whiny and occasionally flat. It easily set the band apart from the rest of the pack, and there are enough CYHSY followers out there to make his vocals an asset.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was most impressive because it was largely self-produced, and yet came out sounding so warm, slick and well arranged. Few bands of CYHSY’s ilk can make the inclusion of instruments like the xylophone or the harp strengths rather than gimmicks. The awkward charm of the album meant that the band got away with such pretentious song titles.
The success of the debut means that the band has the clout to make Dave Fridmann producer of the follow-up. Formerly of Mercury Rev, Fridmann is heavily credited with transforming the Flaming Lips from the punky acid-freaks of their earlier releases, to the epic indie-rock gods of today. The aborted Sleepy Jackson sessions of 2005 suggested that Fridmann may not be as good with other bands as he is with the Lips, and Some Loud Thunder seems to confirm it.
The opening title track of Some Loud Thunder is baffling in its production values. The only instrument that isn’t distorted from an overly loud recording session is what seems to be a rather persistent woodblock. The poor recording of the song detracts from what would be an otherwise decent song, driven by Velvets-style rhythms and darker than anything on the band’s innaugural effort.
All the strong elements of CYHSY’s debut are toned up on Some Loud Thunder, from the discordant backing vocals to the spiky, yet clean guitar rhythms that earned the band so many comparisons to Talking Heads. “Love Song No. 7” is a dark number, driven by a vaudeville-style piano line, with enough discreet slide-guitar, whistling and accordion to make it interesting, while the acoustic “Arm and Hammer” is a downbeat folk number, reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel.
“Satan Said Dance” is by far the most experimental and adventurous song on the album, an alienating track defined by heavy synths and haunting arpeggio guitar. Distorted organ solos and squeaky Pere Ubu-style horns are thrown into the balance on what is essentially a five-minute freak-out. While not the most listener friendly number on the album, “Satan Said Dance” is the most artistically outstanding. For the rest of the album however, CYHSY rather cowardly retreat back to the sound that defined the group’s debut, albeit with a few darker touches thrown in.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah face the disadvantage that all overhyped new artists praised for their originality suffer. Its debut showed a band highly developed and confident in its sound, and the follow-up shows a reluctance to stray from the early formula. It means that while Some Loud Thunder maintains a decent standard of quality, it is nowhere near as exciting as CYHSY’s first album. The band’s weakness may well be that it has become comfortable in its awkward and uncomfortable sound.