by Craig Howieson
It would be safe to say that in late 2004, the name Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was not well known. The band, fiercely independent and with no corporate machine driving their ascent, were quietly plugging away on their debut record – playing shows in Manhattan and Brooklyn – just trying to get the word out. Then where silence had existed, murmurs turned into a deafening roar and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah seemed to be everywhere at once, almost inexplicably so. Fronting the money to record their debut and handle distribution duties themselves, the band relied solely on an online backing that saw them championed by blogs on both sides of the Atlantic. The romanticism of this anecdote is not where this story ends though. There was an album to be explored behind the hype: an intimately singular record that flew in the face of what was happening all around them, as much as the method by which it was brought into the world.
It had been four years since The Strokes et al had saved rock and roll, and the garage rock revival and its numerous offshoots were spreading their tentacle into every facet of popular culture. While, in the UK, the first emergence of the landfill indie that would come to define the late aughts was leaving its first scars. At a time when New York scenesters were scrambling for the next big thing and deciding whether to ditch their skinny jeans, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were happy in a woollen sweater engrossed in their extensive record collections.
The band’s leader, Alec Ounsworth, was a musical magpie – mining the obscure indie gems of his record collection and pulling in a new audience through subterfuge and redirection. It was not so much an attempt to rail against what was going on around him though; he just didn’t feel the need to take notice. The band’s resulting self-titled debut held the idiosyncratic charm of the K Records roster, married to the off the wall leanings of Talking Heads and psychedelia of The Flaming Lips.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is a welcome embrace of a record; obscure enough to place yourself within, but retaining the joyful hopefulness that was driven into it. Designed for bedroom kids in need of a little sting, it grows in stature upon repeated listens, becoming a more confident collection of songs each time it is welcomed into the world of someone new. Free of the machismo that was permeating a lot of the same spaces at the time, Ounsworth wears his insecurities with pride. His willingness to lay himself bare is summed up in his imperfect emotive voice. He lilts and yelps with an unescapable human connection that hammers the record home into your psyche.
On the sideshow carnival of opener Clap Your Hands! Ounsworth takes centre stage, adopting the guise of some half-crazed circus master – leading deranged playground group chants and Wurlitzer synths. It is not until the next track, Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away – with its nervous twitches of anxious percussion, jangling guitars and Ounsworth’s soul-baring vocals – that the record settles into the propulsive positivity it will retain for the remainder of its twelve tracks.
The record barely begins before the bass marks itself out as one of the entire album’s most endearing features. Heard high in the mix on every track, it is the beating heart that never leaves your side. The lyrical quality of Tyler Sargent’s playing plays no small part in the band’s frequent comparisons to Tina Weymouth.
Within their kitsch brand of indie rock, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah imbue each track with the ability to wash away the dirt of another day. On the chiming, sky-gazing synths of Over and Over Again (Lost and Found), we take a foggy-headed stroll with Ounsworth as he displays his cutting wit. (‘You look like David Bowie / But you’ve nothing new to show me’). Bowie, as it turned out, was one of the band’s numerous early admirers – notoriously spotted in the crowd at one of their shows.
Echoes of a hazy childhood lurk in the weeping string bends and thrashed chords of The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth, where the hiss of high hat heralds in a sing-along ballad of unbridled optimism. Even within the anti-war sentiments of album closer, Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood, where Ounsworth ponders the devastation of youth squandered by those in power, there is a cathartic feel to the seemingly endless repetition of the phrase ‘child stars’ in the outro. It is enough to make want to scream along with till your lungs burst.
As detailed in Greg Kot’s book, Ripped, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah sold 400,000 copies of their debut in just 18 months. It was a colossal success for a band who packaged and shipped the majority of them themselves, and it paved the ways for Ounsworth’s move into more experimental territory on their following records – while at all times retaining his same core pop sensibilities, subverting and re-educating.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah may well have been one of the biggest buzz bands of the aughts. Harbouring a unique approach and weaponising an online devotion, they are even widely credited as having spawned the Blog Rock genre. It is a story unlikely to ever be repeated.
But once the buzz disappears, all that is left is the music and the mark it made. The way in which they discovered the record may be the reason fans remember Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but it is the songs – built on anxious heart flutters and words caught in mouths, complete with wonky synths, rolling basslines and a vocalist like few others – that make it a record worth remembering.
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