Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Santa Ana, CA
A decade doesn’t seem like enough time for serious reflection, but the ten years that have passed since Clap Your Hands Say Yeah released their self-titled debut feel like a lifetime.
Part of that is personal, as ten years ago, I set off to college and struggled to prove my cool to a whole new collection of peers. I was all nervous energy and ideas, a messy accumulation of idolized habits and looks with no coherence. Intent on establishing my indie rock cred with the radio station elite, I professed to know and love a range of bands (including Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) far removed from my high school diet of emo and classic rock, but my familiarity extended only to a download and a stray listen or two.
As the last screams of adolescence died out and I settled towards permanent personality and tastes, my ears remained with the bristly, jangly, guitar-driven outfits first adopted to prove personal taste, now legitimately enjoyed on a near-constant basis. While I reshaped myself into something resembling an actual adult, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah became one of my mainstays; the catchiest tracks were constant party staples and the darker, deeper cuts accompanied me on substance-assisted bouts of release and self-reflection. The album, as a whole, remained in my rotation, a permanent fixture amongst a sea of once must-have records gradually falling out of favor.
For their part, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah rode the rising wave of the burgeoning blog scene and traditional critical acclaim to become the new darlings of the scene. With a sound unique enough to alarm and familiar enough to simply groove along to, they were the perfect marriage of experimental weirdness and populist goodies, once you became acclimated to lead singer, Alec Ounsworth’s sometimes nasal and often indecipherable delivery. They seemed poised to break through into the upper echelon of indie rock, but after a disappointing sophomore album, the band gradually faded from the limelight and quietly released a series of fine albums that were increasingly ignored by the majority of the music-going public.
Now the group is back on the road, celebrating the rerelease of their career-defining achievement, and I gleefully drove down to the Constellation Room in Santa Ana for the occasion. At the entrance, I found myself lost in a sea of mostly hispanic metalheads covered in black leather jackets, black studded jeans, and black tattered t-shirts; I had imagined that the crowd would be substantially different from the band’s early converts, but this seemed rather drastic. After some asking around, I discovered that the venue indeed had a secondary stage, in a much smaller room, if the ratio of staggering metal fans to aloof indie devotees was any evidence.
Without a joint, I approximated transcendence with a fast gulp of a tall Pabst. Moments later, CYHSY took the stage and dived right into their breakout album, playing it in its entirely from beginning to end.
The oddest track may be the first: “Clap Your Hands!” Over an escalating circus organ, Ounsworth yelps the band’s wink of a demented mission statement through a megaphone. As startling as it is on record, it was even more so in person, with the vocalist fully inhabiting the role of a psychedelic carnival barker inviting us to come away with them on a sonic journey. With a few tambourine shakes and a sliding bass line, the band broke into “Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away,” and the real fun began. The hypnotic rhythm section got my feet tapping and knees shaking, and Ounsworth‘s winding whine swayed back my shoulders and rocked my head off its axis. No matter what else came, I was content; they still had more than enough juice to get me moving.
One of the advantages of the full-album concert format is that I knew exactly what to expect, that the exact songs that I wanted to see would, in fact, be played that evening. While not their biggest hit or danciest tune, “Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)” had substantial personal significance given the tendency of one my college chums to play it at every party he threw, no matter the size. I wanted to see that live, and the band delivered right on point.
One of the potential drawbacks to this approach was presented with the following track, “Sunshine and Clouds (And Everything Proud).” While it’s a fine twinkle of an instrumental interlude on the record, I’m not sure that anyone in the audience needed to see the live rendition. Still, this was part of the album experience, and they admirably delivered every last note.
During the slow burn of “Details of the War,” I detoured attention to the crowd collected around me: aging hipsters who dusted off their best flannels and leather jackets, wide-eyed youngsters taking a dip into a still foreign scene, polo shirt sporting bros who only nodded recognition at a few songs, and the odd white collar type with seemingly no clue as to what exactly the hell was happening; between wide pockets of enraptured dancers, columns of unmoving confusion provided concrete reminders that we were indeed in a business park in suburban Orange County.
Next, they launched into “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth,” and everyone moved all together. The straight up grooviest tracks of their catalog elicited a sweeping dance party, capturing even the stubborn columns and shaking every surface of the room. A driving jangle with buzzing synths and a haunting tingle of a lead guitar, the song could have almost been a hit had Ounsworth turned in a cleaner, more intelligible vocal. Luckily, he didn’t. As he slurred out phrases that I could only piece together due to my extensive at-home listening, he leaned and moaned like some sloppy bar-band hybrid of Bowie and Dylan, the perfect delivery for the glittering and grinding arrangement dancing all around him. The tune wound down to a close and the crowd returned the biggest applause of the night.
Midway through “Is This Love,” the most played single during the original release, I caught Ounsworth more than slurring the words; he was ignoring them altogether. Even though he had the presence of an intoxicated man, I reasoned that there was no way that he could have forgotten the lyrics to one of the biggest songs of their career. Even if they’d taken a long hiatus from playing the tune live, this nostalgia tour had been going long enough that he surely would have figured it out by now. But the other option made no sense either, that Alec was purposefully submarining this track due to a total lack of interest. He seemed engaged enough otherwise, so I charitably chalked it up to a silly little prank.
After that, came “Heavy Metal,” and I reflected that every song rolled out harder and stronger with the rollicking presentation of the live band. Though a smaller assembly than I would have thought capable of converting the entirety of the album into physical reality, the present players delivered more than enough power, particularly the insatiably pounding drummer. Even the following “Blue Turning Grey,” a slow guitar-picking transition, came with enough energy to firmly hold attention.
I’ve wavered back and forth on which song I like the most from the record, but in recent years, I’ve found myself gravitating towards “In This Home on Ice.” An instantly churning 80s tribute with one of Ounsworth‘s most melodic vocal lines and a constantly buzzing guitar strum, this cut elevated the band to their final form and they reached the peak of the evening. The perfect soundtrack for an isolated protagonist moving through a slow-motion party sequence, “In This Home on Ice” is equal parts bounce and sink, pausing for a moment in the mire and worming its way through to rapturous release. After their lively performance, I will waver no longer.
I caught my breath during the sometimes skipped “Gimmie Some Salt,” after which Ounsworth engaged in some of the only banter of the night, centered primarily around an audience member repeatedly calling the wrong name. Once identities were straightened out, the obviously-sauced lead singer dove straight into the final track, “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood.” With a galloping strum and shimmering lead flourishes, the song served as the perfect conclusion, both sonically and lyrically: the frontman affirmed both our existence and doom, with his band of merrymakers riding the crest of trodden youth. With a dance, a yelp, and a crash, it was all over.
On my way home, I found myself comparing the career trajectories of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Arcade Fire, whose debut album, Funeral was featured in the pre-show pump-up mix. Both groups started as fairly humble members of the internet indie community, rose to quick success with powerful debut albums, and courted attention from the old school experimental rock elite, including David Bowie and David Byrne. From there, however, Arcade Fire exploded with a series of artistically and commercially successful albums, while Clap Your Hands Say Yeah continued recording to diminishing returns. They may never reach the heights of their early competitors, but even then, the group will persist based on the strength of their first record. For one night, at least, I was lucky enough to live again in their heyday.