By Michael Lello
Photos by Jason Riedmiller
PHILADELPHIA – It was a night of firsts for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah last Thursday. First show with new band members. First show featuring songs from CYHSY’s recently released EP. First show including songs from the band’s yet-to-be-completed album, and first show featuring a pair of noteworthy covers.
A video screen promoting Bud Light’s “50 Shows, 50 States, 1 Day,” rose, revealing CYHSY mastermind Alec Ounsworth on the Theater Of Living Arts stage, electric guitar slung over his shoulder and presiding over the ambient noise that grew into “Some Loud Thunder,” the Talking Heads-esque title track from the band’s 2007 album. Next up, Ounsworth and his charges veered into the same album’s “Satan Said Dance,” a dance-inducing blast of indie pop. “Satan,” Ounsworth repeated during the refrain, with the in-the-know crowd responding “said dance!” Another track listed on the setlist as “Done + Done,” presumably from the forthcoming album, was also heavy on the dance vibes, with nice melodies bubbling under the service.
An early highlight was “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth,” from the group’s 2005 self-titled breakthrough, with its intro built on a Built To Spill guitar lick. Light and airy, and, yes, danceable, the song perfectly encapsulates the mid-2000s indie rock boom; it’s odd to feel nostalgia for a song only eight years old, but a lot has happened since then. At this point in the performance, any concerns about rustiness or breaking in new musicians floated away, with the band locked in perfectly.
While CYHSY built an early following through its self-released albums and online press, Ounsworth’s idiosyncratic vocals and layered instrumentals that beautifully blanket the often-sugary melodies gain extra juice that can’t be captured on recordings. “Success is no failure,” Ounsworth sang during “Over and Over Again” – you have to imagine Ounsworth turned down a few TV commercial placement deals for this infectious tune – one of those inscrutable phrases he throws around that seem to mean everything and nothing at the same time.
“Little Moments,” from the brand new EP of the same name and based on a simple synthesizer chord progression, is a unique song that really boasts no chorus or traditional rock instrumentation. The quartet – Ounsworth on vocals, guitars and synthesizers, original member Sean Greenhalgh on drums, and new members on keyboards and keyboards and bass, respectively – then took on “Let The Cool Goddess Rust Away,” a funky selection with Ounsworth on synthesizer.
In an interview with Highway 81 Revisited before the show in the TLA’s upstairs backstage area, Ounsworth shared that one of his favorite recent albums is Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” — but he didn’t mention he’d be covering it that evening. Ounsworth’s unlikely and emotive rendition of Ocean’s slow jam, sans bandmates and accompanied only by his own piano playing, was a treat.
While the debut of the Ocean cover, as well as CYHSY’s barely recognizable and first-ever rendition of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” will jump out to fans reading online setlists, the concert’s ultimate moment came in the form of Ounsworth’s arresting reading of “Love Song No. 7.” Unlike on the album, the song featured a fun, bouncy vaudeville portion, a nice relief from its dark undercurrents. A big rock breakdown, an Ounsworth guitar solo and boisterous piano runs added further flavor to the song, already solid in its recorded form, but something almost entirely new – and better – at the TLA.
The unadorned “Details Of The War,” one of the most straightforward songs in the CYHSY catalog, was delivered with nuance, and while Ounsworth’s voice is understandably a deal breaker for some listeners, his articulation on a track like “Details” is undeniable.
The calliope organ signaled “Is This Love?,” a joyous crowd favorite, before the band closed the set proper with “Upon This Tidal Wave Of Young Blood” – one of eight songs played from the first album.
Ounsworth returned without his bandmates for a new song not written on the setlist — presumably another new one – before the electronic, drumless take on the aforementioned Nirvana classic. With synthesizer squalls dominating the chorus, only Ounsworth’s singing of “No I don’t have a gun” bore any resemblance to the original version. “Cover Up,” another new song, kept the energy level high with ambient guitar, and “Heavy Metal,” featuring a wild piano solo, closed out the show.
With many free tickets floating around thanks to the Budweiser promotion – which essentially meant you could only drink Bud beers and enjoy the privilege of paying $7 for them – it was reasonable to expect a sell-out in Ounsworth’s hometown, but there was a fair amount of elbow room in the venue. A minor detraction from the show, however, which found Clap Your Hands Say Yeah reasserting itself as not only a viable entity, but a riveting live act — and offered a tease of what promises to be an album that won’t disappoint.
Notes: CYHSY’s set followed a heavy and impressive performance by Philly’s Needle Points, with Scranton native Brian Langan on rumbling bass. The band powered through psychedelic and punky garage rock, which can often amount to a wall of noise, but the sound was spot on and the songs were fresh and melodic. The same cannot be said for second opener The Homophones, which played a derivative Smiths-lite set which would’ve been better served as more stage time for Needle Points.