Assessing anything indie maverick Clap Your Hands Say Yeah puts out requires addressing that it was one of the first bands to self-release online. That fact bathed its self-titled debut in a rare glow of novelty, not to mention that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was an outstanding record anyway. After such widespread critical awe, it’s no wonder CYHSY’s subsequent release, Some Loud Thunder, wasn’t nearly as well received. So Alec Ounsworth and his bandmates did what any self-respecting musicians do after a sophomore slump: They “took a break to pursue side projects.”
Fortunately, the band reconvened three years later to make a record with John Congleton, who has produced albums by The Walkmen, Smog, and Okkervil River, among many others. Whether it’s his streamlining influence or the band’s matriculation during (finally) years of no pressure or hype, Hysterical is anything but. Ounsworth’s tenor achieves new heights, on par with singers like Muse’s Matthew Bellamy and occasionally—step aside, Wainiacs—Rufus Wainwright. Hysterical is an accessible album of emphatic miniature orchestras with smooth transitions within and between songs.
On its debut, CYHSY’s frenetic sadness came to define it. This pathos comes out more elegantly on Hysterical in songs like “Misspent Youth”, which opens with descending guitar phrases and melancholy piano keys. The spacious arrangements highlight Ounsworth’s singing about “the glory of a misspent youth/trading sex for drugs.” Similarly, “In a Motel” begins with acoustic guitars fading in and building to minor strings, evoking late-‘60s King Crimson. And on the lush bed of keyboards, strings, and contrapuntal bass that makes up “Idiot”, Ounsworth releases his vocal potential in an echoing canon. He works within his range; for example, on the densely synthetic, complex title track, he knows just the right moments to break his taut vocals, as opposed to cracking more often than not on previous records.
Even though most of Hysterical is more subdued than CYHSY’s earlier releases, the band still has moments of eccentricity. The instrumentation picks up on “Yesterday, Never”, which winningly backs neo-garage guitar whimpers and growls with arpeggiated synthesizers, recalling the band’s more musically experimental beginnings. Hints of Of Montreal’s Satanic Panic in the Attic bubble up in the spastic, blipping synths of “Maniac”, which hew to Ounsworth’s vocal crests and dips. The lyrics “I don’t want to touch your dark arts anymore” and “I miss the way you stare at me/As if I were a memory” also mimic Kevin Barnes’ paranoid desires, down to the fading, repeated intonations of “memory” that close out the song. Later tracks like the gently soaring “Into Your Alien Arms” and “Ketamine and Ecstasy” even follow chord progressions familiar to early CYHSY listeners: The first sounds like “Is This Home on Ice”, and the latter opens with an ebullient, driving beat that sounds like it could have also come off the band’s debut.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s nearly unprecedented virtual explosion into the independent music scene was imperative, both for the band and for the music industry in general. But like any musicians, it was also necessary that CYHSY evolved for a time in which most, if not all, bands release music in some capacity online. Now that Hysterical has cemented the consistency of Ounsworth’s songwriting apart from the strength and infamy of the band’s first album, one would hope that CYHSY continues to release solid albums that are still just a little weird. Because within and alongside the grandiose arrangements, gorgeous strings, and minimal synths throughout Hysterical, you can still hear the raw, delirious emotion that made Clap Your Hands Say Yeah a band to pay attention to in the first place.
Essential Tracks: “Misspent Youth”, “Idiot”, and “Maniac”