[6 November 2008]
Three years ago Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a jangling, thumpy band of Brooklynites that sounded like everyone’s dream of David Byrne fronting Arcade Fire, was blogged to the top of the indie-rock heap by virtue of its self-released, and fantastic, self-titled debut. A little over a year later, though, when CYHSY released their sophomore effort Some Loud Thunder, the web glow was much dimmer, as if the band’s former champions suddenly awoke to say only, “Hey, wow, another Brooklyn band mashing up David Byrne and Arcade Fire? Yawn.”
If the preceding portrayal seems a tad unfair both to the band and the critics that first promoted them, the fact that CYSHSY are archetypal victims of capricious twenty-first century indie fandom is nearly inarguable. What’s unique about the band, though, is the ways they have blunted the inevitable backlash with prickly artistic choices, like opening Some Loud Thunder with a purposefully distorted track, as if it were an aural middle-finger to critical skeptics and illegal downloaders. They also responded to frequent gripes about their lackluster live performances by booking smaller and smaller venues. In 2006, upon the heels of their explosive introduction, CYHSY sold out Washington DC’s 930 Club, a top-shelf local venue that can hold over a thousand. Visiting the capital city last year, the band played the significantly cozier Rock and Roll Hotel, filling it to sweaty capacity three nights in a row. CYHSY’s current tour—a perplexing bit of scheduling that features alternating pairs of shows in Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia, as well as a single stop in Pittsburgh—finds the band performing at the district’s DC9, which is a little larger than a high school classroom and is known for hosting respectable if relatively unknown acts like Asobi Seksu and SBach.
For the second of its shows at DC9—both sold out and separated by three weeks—CYHSY brought their characteristically subdued stage presence and a handful of new songs to an ebullient roomful of spectators. It’s become a well-known fact that at a CYHSY show, the energy of the audience had better be in inverse proportion to that of the band, or else people will be falling asleep. With the lights dimmed on the barely raised stage and most of the band stationary (with the occasional exception of keyboardist/guitarist Robbie Guertin, who evidences pretensions to bounciness), it was easy for the crowd to forget the band was even there and dance like it was any other night at the club. This was especially true on “Satan Said Dance”, a barreling space-funk exploration that is unlike anything the band has ever attempted, where CYHSY played the part of a faceless, sharply effective DJ, and the audience its witting, ecstatic congregants.
The songs off the band’s debut continue to age well, even if they are served with an extra dose of distorted fuzz, as they were on this night. “Is This Love?”, “Let the Cool Goodness Rust Away”, and “In This Home on Ice” brought layers of pulsing, twinkling charm. Tyler Sargent’s brilliant basslines, descriptive enough to be conversational, and vocalist Alec Ounsworth’s nasally howl are the poles around which CYHSY’s magic revolves, and both elements were in fine form. One always knew that the song “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” was one of the band’s best, but it seems to have grown in popularity more than any of the others off the first album, and it was received with the adulation of an anthem.
Unloading new songs at live concerts is always a tricky endeavor, and CYHSY played it smart by spacing out its just-birthed babies and announcing them beforehand, as if to give license to beer and bathroom breaks. The songs unveiled at DC9 showed that the move toward distortion on Some Loud Thunder is continuing, but that the band’s melodic instincts are still intact. The new jams did have a distinct classic-rock flavor, believe it or not. One had a positively Zeppelinish bass line, and another brought to mind a combination of Paul McCartney and My Bloody Valentine.
Whatever the cast of CYHSY’s next album, it’s likely to bring a lot less attention than its predecessors. Judging by the band’s performance at DC9, they are fine with this fate. Relative anonymity may be a blessing for such a set of talented, complicated musicians more interested in bucking trends than following them.