It’s rather interesting to look back at the teaser trailer that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah revealed months before the release of their third album and hear the songs knowing what their proper context is. I remember hearing the four song snippets and being unsure how to react, not being able to picture the surrounding territory. As a listener, was this good? Was it a positive thing that I couldn’t sit back relaxed and say, “Oh yeah, I see what they’re doing there”? Perhaps, but latching onto what I thought they might being doing with a song from twenty seconds or so hardly entices me actually go and listen to the album when it’s all ready and waiting for me. Unless, of course, I was enthusiastic and couldn’t wait to hear these great little ideas spread out and in their full form.
But I wasn’t excited; I was confused more than anything, sitting with a rather baffled look up my face once the teaser video had run its ninety-second runtime. So is it not a little embarrassing for the band that I was left in this state when what the video gave me was actually four clips of some of Hysterical’s better songs? Let me be fair though, it’s hard for any song to draw you in in just under thirty seconds unless it’s sporting a hugely infectious chorus or has an absorbing and intriguing sound about it.
While Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have gone for texture and atmosphere in the past, they’ve never let it be a driving force, nor have they with big choruses. At their best they offered a sideways view of an appealing idea, flanged with honest and sprightly arrangements and Alec Ounsworth’s wavering voice. And to a certain extent they deliver this to the listener again but too often it’s played safe and that sideways view is straightened up. Even Ounsworth’s voice tends to remain polite and careful, rarely colouring outside the lines.
And this is fine in measured and small doses; the album’s opening tracks offer the best example and get proceedings off to a good start. The one-two punch of “Same Mistake” and “Hysterical” get your attention with uplifting performances, the latter of which fares that bit bitter for its tense and frenzied feel. Elsewhere the results are rather middling; “Yesterday, Never” seems to have plenty to offer in the space of less than three minutes, such as whirling synths, enthusiastic strums and crunchy guitar solos, yet still fails to give the listener something to actually hook onto; drenched in rainy-day synth strings, “In A Motel” is a respectable acoustic number which matches the mood with Ounsworth’s lonely imagery but still seems to be fleeting when put in the context in the rest of the album.
Hysterical falls flat when it just seems to have the band churning out CYHSY tracks as done to some sort of formula, which seems to lack a key component to begin with. Most of these tracks come in the latter half of the album which can make getting through the whole fifty minute runtime a drag. “Ketamine And Ecstasy” tries to get by with a chipper guitar riff alone while “Idiot” is another forgettable number laced in synth strings which seems to hide the fact that there’s little holding the song together. Admittedly I do have a soft spot for the somewhat rambunctious single “Maniac” but like “The Witness’s Dull Surprise” it never seems to hit the high point it aims for, fading away to a close as the build up seems to ready to burst open and flood any sort of expectations we might have had. Closing track “Adam’s Plane” does try to capture that moment over the space of seven minutes and the band do manage to finish on high but it’s a high that still feels restrained and more destined for the live circuit instead of the confines of the studio.
At their best the band draw back the quirky almost carefree sound to their music but again these moments are even fewer than the solid and safe tracks. “Siesta (For Snake)” re-captures that cloudy haze that loomed over Some Loud Thunder, offering a track that rewards deeper listening with its background percussion and carefully treading bass. The centrepiece and perhaps even the highlight of the album is “Into Your Alien Arms” where everything seems to keep going forwards and even upwards at points, all leading to the album’s loosest moment where a psychedelic guitar solo takes up your field of vision, complete with occasional feedback. While the backing track of the song fits in with the rest of the album’s dynamics, it still shines a moment when everything just seems unafraid to be itself for a few minutes without coming off uncomfortable.
And it is just a shame really that this feels like the only moment of its kind on Hysterical as more highlights like these could have helped the album detract from its consistent downfalls (songs too reliant on keyboard strings, Ounsworth’s dull and uninteresting prose-like lyrics). Even if there was an album of tracks matching the pleasing sound of “Alien Arms” though, and I heard them all on a trailer months before the album was due out, I would still have a perplexed look upon my face. CYHSY are always going to be a band that benefit from context and I suppose, at the very least, the low points on Hysterical help those few good moments shine through more easily but for a band that used to shine so well before, that’s more sad and disappointing than anything else.
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