Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Turns 10
The fine print: You are reading a music blog — or at least an indie-leaning music website that was definitely a blog in 2005 and, okay, is still a blog today, especially after our last couple redesigns — and we as an institution are thereby complicit in the rise (and arguably the fall) of the oft-derided genre known as blog rock. Blog rock is heretofore defined as vaguely cutesy, art-damaged, pop-minded B-list independent music popular among the online tastemakers of a decade ago, or “music that sounds like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah” for short. When considering the blog rock object lesson that is this Brooklyn combo’s self-titled debut album, which turns 10 years old this Sunday along with babies conceived to Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” during the 2004 holiday season, we must partially implicate ourselves. The bloggers did not invent Alec Ounsworth’s nasal cavity, but we forced it up yours.
Not me, personally; I was on the receiving end, having just begun my senior year at Ohio University, eagerly on the hunt for the next Arcade Fire. Even more than You Forgot It In People and Michigan before it, Funeral was so special for me, and I was eager to consume whatever else the internet’s burgeoning indie-rock industrial complex would feed me. There were so many of us in the same situation that when the hype reached fever pitch, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah became something bigger than a humble, infectious, fearlessly grating dance-punk album. Suddenly, these anonymous dudes from Brooklyn with no record deal became exemplars of the power of websites to launch a band’s career.
They were polarizing from the start — that voice does not allow anyone a seat on the fence of the sheep pen, and yes that is a double entendre referencing both Ounsworth’s bleating timbre and the lemming march that surrounded this band, thank you for asking — but the instant controversy over CYHSY’s merit only fueled the public interest. Everyone from early adopters to curious gawkers rushed to see them on tour, and many of them filed out of America’s venues before the headlining band (some sad drunk white men calling themselves the National) even made it on stage. It was all very Emperor’s New Clothes, if the clothes were purchased at Urban Outfitters with your parents’ credit card. And when the hype storm died down and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah failed to replicate their debut LP’s success (or quality — apologies to the dozen or so Some Loud Thunder stans still haunting the internet’s more contrarian corners), they descended ever further down the food chain until inevitably becoming a nostalgia object for a mildly embarrassing era. This album’s inevitable 10-year anniversary tour hit venues half the size of the joints these guys were playing in 2005.
Poor Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. We can’t just remember the music on its own terms; it’s forever saddled with more contextual baggage than any album deserves. Nor do most of us bother to give the rest of their discography any attention, much less critical scrutiny. They seem consigned to a fate of one-album wonder, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah itself is not remembered as a classic so much as a parable about the folly of trendmongering: “Remember children, the bubble will always burst.”
Can we say anything for this music beyond “At least it’s not Cold War Kids”? We can! Forget about the willfully obnoxious circus-freak opening track and thrust yourself directly into “Let The Cool Goddess Rust Away,” the first of this album’s many “hits.” There’s a real sense of drama in its two-chord vamp and surging rhythm section, the feeling of a ship approaching in the distance. And Ounsworth’s exaggerated whine is electric on that one; it slices through his bandmates’ shambolic wall of sound, multiplying the beauty by disrupting it. That’s followed by the pleasingly uptight New Wave ditty “Over And Over Again.” This very week I heard it in the background at an overpriced, formerly hip yuppie restaurant in Columbus, and it held up far better than my $15 salad.
As song titles go, you won’t do much better than “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth,” and against all odds, the music lives up, a winsome Talking Heads tribute topped off with one of history’s most underrated keyboard parts. “Is This Love?” is a whirlwind cartoon that dares you to double-down on Ounsworth’s yowling, “Upon This Tidal Wave Of Young Blood” makes for satisfyingly brisk closure, and maybe you have fond memories of some of the filler tracks that you’d like to share in the comments, but there’s only one other song here that merits revisitation. If anything off Clap Your Hands Say Yeah had the kids flailing at those indie dance nights that were all the rage back then, it was “In This Home On Ice,” and rightly so. That song is a frigid tidal wave, its synth/bass/drums current threatening to sweep Ounsworth beneath the surface until his high-pitched warbles end up surfing on top, victorious for a few precious seconds in song time and about 15 minutes in pop culture time.
Would we look back on this album more favorably if not for all the bluster the accompanied it? More likely, we wouldn’t even think to look back. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is an enjoyable, above-average listen from an idiosyncratic band, the likes of which litter the annals of indie-rock history. Entire bands, labels, and scenes have been a going concern among the music intelligentsia only to disappear into the kind of obscurity that doesn’t make for anniversary retrospectives. So in a way, Ounsworth and friends are more fortunate than most, even if their narrative arc seems more than a little unfortunate. Their fate makes me wonder which of today’s Next Big Things we will remember with such ambivalence — and which ones we won’t remember at all. Submit your suggestions in the comments alongside your blog rock confessions.