February 8, 2007

Sophomore Effort Makes Noise

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The prospect of a band you love putting out a new album can be terrifying, so let me relieve your suspense right away. The new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album isn’t as timeless as their debut was, but it’s still really, really good.

Thing is, the band will never, ever, make an album as good as their first one. So much of that self-titled LP’s delirious beauty rested in its absolute newness. I can still remember hearing “Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away” two summers ago and realizing that I was up against something incredible. They weren’t trying to be dance-punks from 1981, weird folkies from 1968, or early-nineties shoegazers. Instead of posturing, the band followed an old cliché — be yourself and people will like you. That first album was filled with genuine originality, a spirit shared by very few bands ever.

Therein lies the struggle of their second album; the conflict between originality and their back catalogue. CYHSY was more an album than a band to many listeners, and odds are that anyone who hears the new album will be comparing it to the old one. The musicians are now stuck in their own shadow. They must imitate the tiny, simple first album while avoiding imitation, push forwards without sounding either totally derivative or like an overproduced mess.

Somehow, magically enough, Some Loud Thunder pulls off this complicated feat. Ounsworth still sounds like a gloriously atonal carny, backed with both weary angst and ecstasy. At the same time, the lyrics and melodies are much more complicated. He jumps into junk-shop chaos and free verse on more than one track. Many passages evoke poets, artists, abstract ideas and bizarre images in a single breath. Some lines are even lightly self-aware, like the third track’s “I leave New York, for other cities,” which follows a trajectory begun by the first album’s “Far, far away from West Virginia, I try New York City.”

They’re also mining classic pop by accentuating its flaws, then progressing beyond them. Listen to the beginning of “Emily Jean Stock,” for instance, then see where it goes from its sing-songy origins. Such conceptual tricks do come at the loss of their debut’s beautiful naiveté, and the way you could listen to that album on repeat for hours. Nothing here matches the purity of “Gimme Some Salt.” But still, the band gains something, a larger voice through outgrowing simplicity.

The album is not flawless — sometimes the intelligence of it outstrips the aesthetics. You can hear this in the first track, intentionally mastered to sound like a blown-out speaker, maybe from a song played over and over again at top volume … this might be an interesting idea, but it ruined a song with some of the best lyrics on the album. They didn’t deserve that sacrifice. Somehow, they put out just the right sophomore album.