Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - "Hysterical"
Release Date: September 12th, 2011
Memory, expectation, and time all contribute to a listener’s attachment to an album or band. What’s fascinating is how an unknown release from a small band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah back in 2004 has nothing but upside considering there aren’t any expectations to fulfill. What’s a blessing at the time can turn into a curse for bands breaking out because they have to continually satisfy a standard they’ve created. It’s my opinion that the S/T debut from CYHSY was successful because 1.) It’s a great record with outstanding songs, and 2.) It was a unique sound that introduced a band filling a void in indie rock listeners didn’t even know existed.
In 2007, two years after the release of their S/T album, CYHSY followed with the highly anticipated Some Loud Thunder. The general consensus was that the sophomore effort was a letdown. My feelings at the time were mixed and I classified it simply as not as good as their first album. In writing this review for Hysterical, I went back and listened to all three albums in a row. I was shocked to find how many tracks I loved off Some Loud Thunder. In fact, I would put “Goodbye to Mother and the Cove” and “Yankee Go Home” on a top CYHSY track list at this point. The “problem” with Some Loud Thunder became clear. Unlike the happy sounding S/T release featuring only one downtrodden song, “Gimmie Some Salt,” Some Loud Thunder is a thematically depressing album. Even the album art from the two albums went from bright orange and neon pink to somber black and white.
The biggest detractor, or rather, distracter, is the opening track “Some Loud Thunder”. Fans had the much-coveted S/T album for two years and when they hit play on the follow up, the first track they heard was riddled with distortion and clipping that pained the ear. What many people, including myself, ignored is that they hired Dave Fridmann to produce the record. Fridmann is known for his harsh production techniques, techniques he’s used to great success with The Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse, and many more. Some Loud Thunder isn’t a bad album; it’s just not what we expected. Expectation can strangle the ability for a listener to clearly separate themselves from what they want and what is presented. A band rarely wins on their sophomore release following unanimous critical acclaim and the achievement of an instant fan base from their first album. If the second album sounds too similar to the first, the band is a one trick pony. If they diverge too much sonically (as heard on Some Loud Thunder) then they’re no longer the same band we all fell in love with. It’s a lose/lose situation and the reason why so many bands fail to ever outgrow the “well, it’s not as good as their first record” stigma.
After a four-year hiatus, CYHSY returns with Hysterical and while it’s receiving a better reaction then Some Loud Thunder, the comparison and failure to live up to the S/T release still lingers among most reviews and discussions. Let’s end this right now. If you’re planning on listening to Hysterical primarily as a comparison to their S/T to see if they “still have it”…then don’t waste your time, you’ll be disappointed. If you go in with an open mind and listen to it from start to finish with your sole focus on Hysterical and Hysterical alone, then there’s a good chance you’ll think it’s a great record.
Hysterical could be seen as a mixture of the first two albums, one part upbeat, one part down-trodden. Yet, CYHSY’s third offering is completely independent of the first two records. Hysterical is their best produced album to date and holds a strong artistic vision through all twelve tracks. The album opens with the two most infectious songs on the record, “My Mistake” and “Hysterical.” “My Mistake” has this wonderful juxtaposition between the quick moving melody and Alec Ounsworth’s calm vocal styling. Ounsworth knows exactly when to push his vocals higher and to raise the emotion to give the song its striking peaks and dips. “Hysterical,” my favorite track, is a ravenous offering that gently grabs the listener by the hand and takes them on a fast moving ride that never lets up. This is the first point where the background instruments introduce themselves as the means for sonic depth. Throughout the album, distorted guitar lines and synths pop up and then quickly hide, and are the little touches that have me returning to Hysterical for multiple spins.
The biggest risk and reward on Hysterical is the collection of songs that reveal the inner workings and softer side of CYHSY. Tracks like “Misspent Youth,” “In a Motel,” and the seven-minute heartbreaker “Adam’s Song” have moments of darkness reminiscent of Some Loud Thunder, but they also always include an upswing that hints at optimism. Instead of depression causing the listener to mimic the feeling, the songs seem more exploratory, focused on stepping in and out of sadness rather than being stuck in one mood. It all makes for a fascinating sonic journey – a perfectly structured album with each track slowly building and melting into the next, ultimately revealing all sides of the band at this stage of their career.
Like most of you reading this, CYHSY’s debut record will always mean a lot to me and will probably remain as my favorite in their discography. However, I don’t agree with critics or listeners who seem to feel that their respect for the S/T should change anything about how they receive Hysterical. It’s a sparkling record that might be the most revealing and intimate album the band has released to date, and it deserves an objective spin. Put some distance between the records and listen to Hysterical for what it is – a great record released six years after the album you initially fell in love with. What’s funny is that if Hysterical and the S/T flipped release dates, good money says Hysterical is the album you would consider an indie classic, while the S/T would be met with… well, it’s good, but it’s no Hysterical.