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Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Hysterical

The critical darlings break their hiatus — but find themselves boxed in by a slick new sound.

Ever since their debut in 2005, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has worked under the heavy weight of acclaim. The indie-pop outfit’s self-titled debut album helped define the musical landscape of the mid-2000s in terms of both sound and sensibility, as band mates Alec Ounsworth, Robbie Guertin, Lee Sargent, Tyler Sargent and Sean Greenhalgh opted to record, release, promote and distribute the album completely independently. In doing so, they raised up both a legion of fans hooked on their frenetic, unsettlingly catchy songs and a wave of attention from music critics who named them the face of the new Internet-driven music industry. 2007’s Loud Thunder, also independently released, only cranked the volume up a few notches in terms of danceability, anxiety and praise. After taking a four-year hiatus, the band’s release of a teaser trailer earlier this year sent music bloggers into a frenzy of speculation. Many hoped the boys from Brooklyn would continue to embody the concept of jolie-laide—a French term roughly translating as “pretty ugly,” and an apt description of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s unique ability to make songs that are often gorgeous despite being disturbingly raw.

Hysterical would seem to indicate that the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah spent the four years since their last album struggling less with existential dread and aesthetic balance than they did with identity crises. The album’s opener “Same Mistake” sucks the listener in with an anthemic swell of strings that would be equally contextual in an Arcade Fire track. However, just when the visions of iPad commercials and stadium tours are starting to crystallize in your mind’s eye, frontman Ounsworth belts out with his distinctive vocal combination of “piercing,” “nasal” and “evocative,” almost stunning in its oddness. For all of the charm and character it brought to the earlier releases, amidst the slick production of Hysterical, Ounsworth’s voice sounds both out-of-place and misutilized, almost like Bob Dylan singing backup in a Baptist choir.

The production’s pitfalls are surprising, considering the album was produced by John Congleton, another critical darling who also recently crafted tracks for the likes of St. Vincent, Okkervil River and the Mountain Goats—wonderfully quirky musicians who capitalize perfectly upon their peculiarities, vocal and otherwise. However, all of those acts convey a certain comfort in the world of the producer’s booth. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, on the other hand, established themselves as a band insistent on taking a loose, organic sound and playing it to the fullest of its capability, at its best moments as messy and vibrant as the best house party you’ve ever been to. Strangely, for an album called Hysterical, this is perhaps the most composed album we’ve heard from the band. The rambunctious energy is dusted over with fatigue and overly perfect production, rendering some of the album’s biggest rockers like “Yesterday, Never” and “Idiot” as paint-by-numbers indie pop. For a group that made a name for themselves both by crafting jovial, insouciant dance-rock and by insisting they would not be beholden to any interests but their own, this fatigue and sense of rehashing sounds like a proverbial kiss of death to their base.

However, in an album that often feels like a glossy but hollow retread, Hysterical has glowing moments that portent the future accomplishments we can hope to hear from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. “In a Motel,” a quirky string-propelled ballad haunted by the ghosts of women who have gone away in body if not in memory, stands as perhaps one of the band’s most accomplished works with a complex melody and subtle, nuanced gloom evocative of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song.” In comparison to the band’s former tendency toward mania, understated ennui is almost shocking. Another track demonstrating this more grown-up sense of composition and emotion, “The Witness’s Dull Surprise,” evokes both the Talking Heads and Band of Horses while remaining grounded in the galloping, summery sound that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah started from—an evolution in sound that doesn’t jettison the band’s roots as much as showcase them in a new setting.

In spite of its strong points, Hysterical may be the album that breaks Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s spell over critics and fans alike. While writing this review at a hip Southeast Portland coffee house, a bearded guy in skinny jeans and a Pendleton shirt picked up the copy of Hysteria off my table and inspected it for a moment before a slight sneer passed over his face. “Aah,” he sighed nostalgically, his eyes turned downwards in memory of good times in 2007, before he tossed the case back down onto the table. “I remember when I used to like them.” Without major growth and maturation as artists, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will remain a band of nostalgia, of good times driving in the car with your friends and dance parties on hot weekend nights. Being a band that people remember they used to like is a very different thing from being a band that listeners still like—and unfortunately, Hysterical is unlikely to evoke anything like the enthusiasm that the band’s name once commanded.

Nick Mattos is a columnist and freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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