Alec Ounsworth – Mo Beauty

[ANTI-; 2009]

I was dismayed: the news that the third Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album was not likely to be released anytime soon while the members took time to delve into their own projects was disheartening. But there seemed to be little outcry from others. The fact that their second album, Some Loud Thunder, didn’t have the same consistency as their glorious upbeat self-titled debut put some people off while others interpreted it as a deliberate jeopardization, but I think that might have been the wrong train of thought to adopt.

CYHSY singer Alec Ounsworth is an inventive and admirable musician who also seems to be disregarded as being significant. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was (and optimistically is, if he should return to that moniker) just an outlet for his creative combination of obtuse lyrical content and textural melodies, and like many great musicians Ounsworth has a steady output of material to offer those interested. Most instantly appealing is Mo Beauty, a consistent collection of rewarding songs released on Anti- under his own name.

From the start, listeners are caught off guard: a hi-hat is struck and a jagged, edgy melody unfolds to an eventual climax as Ounsworth sings of “all this useless beauty.” This could well be reference to his own work but his lyrics are, as mentioned before, imperceptive and cryptic, finding their attraction in internal rhymes and turning phrases around to give them new meaning (“A boy who knows less than he thinks” being a classic example).

“Bones In the Grave” has a Tom Waits style clatter to it in the same way the theme music to the comedy series Black Books does, while closing song “When You Have No Eyes” floats a flumpy riff over a sea of cloudy ambiance, sounding like some distant cousin to “Five Easy Pieces” without the buzz. Elsewhere a distinguishable sound of location comes through: the horns that feature on more than a few tracks here range from those that evoke stereotypical images of an Old Orleans brass band playing in the street, to other instances where brass adds another whirr of excitement to tracks such as the bombastic “That Is Not My Home (After Bruegel)” or the surprisingly upbeat “South Philadelphia (Drug Days).”

In retrospect it’s easy to say that Ounsworth isn’t pushing himself out of any comfort zone here; none of the tracks sound significantly surprising on first listen, and when I started becoming familiar with the tracks I found myself considering that this might just be a mediocre set of songs from someone without a definitive backing band. However, after a few more listens this original thought shifted and I found myself so easily and actively enjoying the album that the thought of playing the whole thing back to front became an utterly pleasing prospect. Fair enough, some songs are better and more eye-catching than others such as the kicking shuffle of “Me And You, Watson” or the tender “Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (Song For New Orleans)” but every song also has at least a few singular features you’ll happily sit through to hear again such as drunken crooning on “Idiots In The Rain.”

“Obscene Queen Bee #2” is a track I’ve known of since the early days of Clap Your Heads Say Yeah in the form of an acoustic moment on a BBC 6 Music radio show then called “Cigarettes.” On Mo Beauty it’s fleshed out with organ and an added chorus. Admittedly I prefer the older version but this newer version (there’s also another version on Ounsworth’s other recent release Skin And Bones under the Flashy Python name) sums up the differences between this release and those prior to it; he’s obviously exploring the creation process in different environments and with new people. Some will look back at Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s debut and wonder what’s changed since, but in the case of “Obscene Queen Bee #2” Ounsworth’s lyrics, for once, might have an obvious meaning when he says “we should never get so sentimental.”