There's no way to talk about a band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah without talking about what happened. CYHSY was in exactly the right place (Brooklyn/Philadelphia) at exactly the right time (around 2005, approximately when the Internet discovered music) and then, suddenly, by 2007, when their second album came out, they weren't. The miraculous success of frontman Alec Ounsworth's debut album became a case study on the internet meme machine and the burgeoning Brooklyn scene, but if measured by the lackluster reception of the band's second album, it seems like CYHSY also became a case study on how to get chewed up and spit out the other end of your own dizzying feedback loop.
But riddle me this: In September of 2011, after a four year hiatus and seven years after the anthemic debut, how could it be that people in the audience of the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah show still knew (and passionately chanted) all the words to songs like "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth," "Is This Love?" and "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood"? It appeared that outside of the music blogosphere, in ways that actually mattered on a personal level, CYHSY had left an indelible mark on a generation of people—maybe for those who had just moved to New York and were experiencing the dual thrills of city life and a new bohemia (now, not so new).
This made it both confusing and exciting to witness how, last night, the new material worked on audience with a very specific poetic memory of the band. After all, the new album, which came out yesterday, is not the sound of the debut. After time spent on other musical projects—including Ounsworth's recent collaboration with New Orleans jazz musicians—the new stuff is more mature, more mellow and less abrasive. Just posit a reflective, finger-picky centric track like "Misspent Youth" or the mostly acoustic, super well-crafted "In a Motel" next to the jerky, frenetic first album, and see age and change develop. But, the set, which included a mix of new and old throughout, was, by any objective showgoing measure, solid. And the new album is beautiful in ways the band hasn't articulated itself before.
When Ounsworth's guitar strap came off at the beginning of the set, he mumbled a "That was awkward." And in between songs, the frontman swallowed introductions and explanations under his breath. His fairly reserved bandmates—Lee Sargent, Tyler Sargent, Robbie Guertin and Sean Greenhalgh—didn't reveal much either. A "thank you" and a small, bewildered shrug seemed to sum up both the silliness of hype and the poignancy of deserving, lasting CYHSY puppy love. "You guys..." Ounsworth trailed off, with a quick smile. Oh, us guys.