Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!
|I agree with the idea that sometimes a singer's voice can make or break a band. Sometimes, there's just something about someone's way of singing that can make you behave exceedingly irrationaly in regards to their music. But these guys — it's as if they are challenging you to despise them only for their voice. Disliking this guy's voice is such an obvious decision that you have to stop for a second and wonder if it's some kind of trap. Now, it's not bad bad; he's not screaming or barking or anything obvious that. No, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! are guests at the increasingly less vacant Neutral Milk Hotel, which means that the singer gets up on stage and sings his little heart out, sounding like the shy little wallflower at the party. When he sings a note, he kind of aims in the general direction of it, closes his eyes, and fires away. The voice is the first and last thing about this band; everything else is a footnote.
I am completely against the idea that you have to be a good singer to front a band. My problem with this singer is that he's not singing like this because it's just how his voice is. He sings like this because he wants to. My impression is that he was listening to Radiohead's Kid A and said to himself, "why doesn't he sing like that all the time?? I should do that!" I would suggest that he tone it down some, except that it defines the band. And it defines the band because the music isn't strong enough to fall back on.
The album starts out promising enough with a calliope and organ song featuring a 1920's old-timey carnival barker. It's unfortunate, because this is the most interesting song on the album. "Let The Cool Goddess Rust" is a good choice for the second song because it has a strong melody, which allows the listener to ease into the vocal delivery. It's also in familiar lo-fi electric guitar indie territorry. The next song, "Over and Over Again", is probably the best song musically because the singer tones everything down and goes into full Thom Yorke mode. But at heart, it's just another new wave song; albeit a good one. Then for some reason comes a bell/music box style chord progression, repeated for one minute. Why is that there? It's a poor segue between songs; I can only guess they considered the arrangement clever. The majority of the album is good, but without that unique voice, they're just another 80s new wave influenced indie band.
I may have been harsh on these guys, but the truth is I like listening to their music when the singer isn't in full "nerdy Rick Moranis singing mode". But they neither make me want to clap my hands nor say "yeah." Good band, gimmicky singer; I say "burn".
|This album has one of the best opening tracks I've ever heard. You could be listening to a wax cylinder; a deliciously era-appropriate organ stalks through glockenspiel and assorted other children's percussion devices as a deranged carnival barker sings an ode to the seashore. Then he begins exhorting his bandmates to Clap their Hands, which they do, but not without complaint: so we get exchanges like
Freak: Clap your hands!
Band: But I feel so lonely!
Freak: Clap your hands!
Band: But it won't do nothing!
Until they ask him if he's up to something, which he probably is. The whole effect is beautiful, lo-fi, textured, and affecting. The rest of the album, not so much.
Things do start to get a little tedious almost the minute modern instrumentation creeps into the mix (i.e., the first second of track 2.) This band isn't big on the ol' songwriting, is the problem - they often let entire songs go by on one simple riff, without even changing things up for a chorus. They're very good at texturing those riffs, adding in guitars and layers of tinny percussion and pretty vocal harmonies, but none of them are particularly prodigious as instrumentalists, either, and there's a limit to how much dynamic tension you can create by changing the way you play the same chord. On the other hand, the sounds they get out of their instruments, particularly the rubbery, endlessly looping bass and the assortment of fun keyboards, are pretty nifty. The appropriately-named "Over and Over Again" is very pleasant listening, partly because the vocalist has reigned in his crackbrained yelp and has decided to croon a little bit. But still, the song ends thirty seconds before the track does, and the band just keeps chugging away at the same loop, as if to remind us that change does not fit into their musical ideology. They are proud of their sameness.
Let's return to the problem of the vocals for a moment. They're drunken, Isaac Brocky, like all the cool rock bands from 2005, each word laden with emotion and inflected to wring the most damage and defeat from every syllable. Problem is after the first track the lyrics don't do much to convince me I should care -- I don't know what he's on about, really, and the band's very cuteness, the chug of their same-y choo-choo indie rock, undercuts whatever gravitas he might've had. Check out the heartland america Springsteen rock of "The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth", for example, with its three-chord shuffle -- it sounds like a brain-damaged Modest Mouse, with all the danger drained out, and as the singer's voice cracks on nearly every word I have to stop and ask myself: is this parody?
There are a lot of ideas at work here, and a lot of it's really very nice to listen to, but the shifts in tone, the way that we can't tell whether the singer is actually deranged or just doing a clever ironic put-on distances it for me. "Is This Love," where he sings his woah-woah-woahs as if he's about to fall off his chair (sounding more like his persona from the first track than at any point since), and there's an entirely unexpected time-signature change-up at the end, brings me in again -- the stupefyingly tedious guitar porridge of "In This Home On Ice" kicks me out. This album would've worked so well without half the songs-- if they'd paid attention to the feeling they created at the top and preserved it throughout instead of throwing whatever they had on to the tracklist. Without a lot of musical interest, originality, or innovation to trade on, that feeling is about all they have going for them. So go ahead and burn this one, make the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! album you want to make, and discard the rest. (For your reference- my CYHSY! album is tracks 1, 3, 7, 8, and 11, with an option on the tiny loops of 4 and 9 for padding.)
And give me points for not mentioning the ridiculous media frenzy that sparked up around these guys, whose only super-remarkable feature at this point is their genius for self-promotion.
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The Clientele: Strange Geometry
|I am a computer scientist by trade, and one of the things you notice if you stay in the field (any field, actually), is that most new ideas are in fact not very new at all. Instead, they're just ideas that were ahead of their time and have been dormant for a while, and now someone has finally rediscovered them, given them a new name, and packaged them to that they are feasible to a modern audience. Sometimes people even claim that very old ideas that never went away are brand new ideas. Music, on the other hand, can't work like that because people remember everything that came before it. So, when The Clientele comes on your iPod, everyone goes, "oh, this sounds just like the Beatles/Monkees/Bob Dylan" or whoever. This, one would assume, is intended to detract from The Clientele's credibility. But, like most ideas, sometimes old ones work well in new situations. Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not the music is good or not.
The Clientele plays pop songs in the vein of the teen pop songs of the 60s, calling to mind the crooning groups of smart, handsome, young, wholesome boys that made up popular rock and roll bands back then. They tend towards the more mellow side of that era, sounding not like the Beatles, but more like the later Monkees, Smile-era Brian Wilson, The Animals, and just grazing upon The Velvet Underground. Really, they sound like very early-era Spinal Tap (during the "The Flower People" era). They've got all the sounds right: the singer's accent is dead-on, they have flat, subdued drums, and the very necessary Vibroluxe reverb vibrato guitar. But the sound that The Clientele gets is very authentic, and by that I don't mean that like Mexican restaurants mean it when they tell you the cooking is "authentic". That is, I'm not saying they sound like a band from 60s, I'm saying they sound like an actual, legitimate band. They're not trying to sound retro, that's just the music they like, and it comes out in what they write. They use the style well, and if you listen closely enough, you can make out modern influences in the guitar and bass lines as well.
That being said, what they do write is professional, well-recorded, and very convincingly played. The only problem is that I have a hard time remembering more than a couple of the songs. This album mostly has well written songs devoid of any hooks. The songs I do remember I'm not likely to be humming later on. "E.M.P.T.Y" and "Spirit" both have memorable lines and good flow. "Losing Harringey" is a spoken word song with an interesting anecdote, albeit a bit cheesy. But I have to ask myself: when is the next time I will listen to this album? The answer is, "not soon", and so I'll have to recommend you burn this CD.
|You ever hear the Posies? Or any of the folks the Posies ripped off? Squeeze a little bit of the Apples In Stereo and their manifold antecedents in and swish it around in your brain a little. Then you don't need to listen to this album.
...OK, I'm not going to waste my short review on this sucker, but I am finding it difficult to get through it without nodding off. You could stick a tap in these guys and put the resulting ooze on your pancakes. (Skim the production sheen off the top and feed it to Love is All, won't you?) They have a song called " E.M.P.T.Y.", for god's sake, and it's so string-sweetened and lead-arpeggiated and shaker-stained that there's not an inch of free space in the mix where you can hide from the saccharine sadness. (Seriously. There's a keyboard back in the back, cutting off all escape). And then the George Harrison guitar solo kicks in. It is enough to make you consider self-disembowelment as a proper critical response. Also, somebody should tell the guitarist that he's allowed to turn down the knobs on his amp marked "reverb" and "tremolo".
All of which isn't to say that the stuff isn't nice. It is, unbearably so. The bass parts are smooth and happy, the drummer is uncomplicated but competent, the melodies and harmonies are all very pleasant, and the lyrics vanish into the ether without leaving much of an impression either way. It's just missing that certain je ne sais quoi that makes for memorable and interesting music. As it is, this stuff would be great for quiet moments in romantic movies - the kind where people look damply off into the distance out of rainy windowpanes, or where they sit and stare at the ocean. There're twelve "our songs" here for romcom couples I don't care about. If you gave these guys some drugs, they'd sound like Spiritualized - and god, what a massive improvement that would be. In the meantime we have to deal with songs like "Impossible", which features vocals so voluptuously cutesy that I'm almost certain they kidnapped Ken Stringfellow and used some horror-film machine to suck all the lingering grunge out of him before propping him up in front of the mic. And please don't get me started on "Losing Haringey", an instrumental track made from unbearably sweet Beatles leftovers mated with musings about the singer's youth delivered in fine short-story style. As far as I'm concerned you can't get away with this kind of thing unless you're Scottish.
Of course it isn't as bad as all that -- I am in some respects a musical diabetic, and the same way I couldn't listen to Brian Wilson without reaching for the insulin, the sheer honey-dripped goodness of this music is not something I can easily stand. Nonetheless, this is about my opinion: this stuff is repetitive, hollow, and gives me hives. Skip it.
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Love Is All: 9 Times That Same Song
|"One more time!" That's not something you hear very often these days. Or maybe it is; I haven't been to many aging 70s supergroup concerts lately, and probably wouldn't be that excited about hearing their big radio hit one more time. But Love Is All strikes different ground on the first song on the album, with a chorus of guys in the background singing "one more time!" like an old 60s song (Hey Baby! comes to mind). One can only assume that these are the horn players singing. The rest of the song consists mostly of the chorus, which is the female lead singer spitting out "t-t-t-talk talk talk" over and over again in different inflections like a community theatre actor reading over their lines before an audition. And behind the whole thing is a grade A band who has taken the best bits from 80s music and ska and put it all into a nice, reverby package. This fusion of inspired shrieking and 60s musical chops is a something you don't hear a lot these days, and certainly never outside your local small record shop.
This music carries with it the energy associated with so many of the musical movements of the past: 70s punk, 80s new wave, and 90s riot grrl. Apparently Love Is All has a desire to be counter-culture as well, with songs named both "Turn The Radio Off" and "Turn The TV Off". It's very refreshing to hear a band having this much fun, too. The fact that the CD is a few decibles louder than the rest of my music helps, too. But plenty of bands have this kind of passion. What sets Love Is All apart is their ability to play their instruments and their ability to write hooks. They remind me of The Concretes, with the deep reverb, female singer, horn section, and so-obvious-why-didn't-I-think-of-it hooks. The only problem with the CD is that Love is All tries to go full speed the whole way. Some of the songs in the middle of the album ("Busy Doing Nothing") sound like they're just shooting blanks. And on such a short CD, it's even more disappointing.
But even the mediocre songs are still good: "Aging" vibrates with B-52s-style absolute abandon. My tastes are such that this CD may slip to the bottom of the pile, but I appreciate what Love Is All is doing too much to suggest anything besides buying this CD.
|At their best, these folks remind you of the Sugarcubes, and that is a feat in and of itself. Their piping, punky girl-rock singer is no Bjork, but then again her male backup singer is no Einar. (I thought Einar was pretty awesome myself, mind you, but I realize I'm flying in the face of popular opinion there.) What they do have is the manic energy, the awesome horn section, the obsession with day-to-day minutiae, and the funny accents. Weirdly, they also sound like they were recorded out in the cowshed by their uncle Sven, which is really unfortunate and cuts down on the immediacy of the material shamefully. I would love to hear all the parts coming through clearly, particularly the rhythm section, which sort of blurs into a puddle in the middle of the mix, covered in a greasy film of distortion. It makes me sad, particularly on Abba-esque ballads like "Turn The Radio Off", where the vocals and the saxophone should be popping out at me instead of languishing in far corners of an echo chamber.
So, unfortunate recording choices and overuse of vocal effects aside (she really doesn't need to be distorted, ever - her natural yelping makes up for it) what kind of music are we dealing with here? We've got riot-girl ska, disco punk, europop, and when we're lucky (like on the opening track), a delicious melange of all three. Lyrical content is uniformly charming - "I know we like the same kind of cheese!" she intones with great gravity on the rubbery disco number "Used Goods". It's all about the tedium of everyday life, with the defining anthem being "Busy Doing Nothing", a sort of Franz Ferdinand with horns number about sitting at home wasting time. She wants you to turn the radio and the TV off, she couldn't even bother to come up with the titles to all these songs. But she also falls in love, as on the weird, sweet "Felt Tip", which hangs on a wonderful, deep-throated bass groove and is so soaked in delay that everything swirls gently together, and it works, tripping between euro-pop balladry and mad disco fury. And all about a dude who likes to write on walls.
The more I listen to this album the more cause I have to lament the way it was recorded. I want to hear more of it -- there are only a few duds, like the intentionally repetitive "Make Out Fall Our Make Up", which is almost completely swallowed up by the sucking pool of distortion in the middle of the mix. And even that one might've been saved and even made majestic in a big-drum eighties sort of way if the parts had been separated properly. You could say that the manic listlessness that defines the lyrical content of the album spilled out and lazied up the execution, but every musician on here is twice as tight and skilled as any member of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!... there's a disconnect which can only be explained by cash flow problems. So I say to every major label: sign these kids up and give them a recording budget! Where's the Elektra for these folks? (Oh, right. They went under.)
In the meantime, buy this album to hear a sketch of what might've been. Or just turn it way, way up, which is the only way to properly hear everything that's going on.
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Clipse: We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2
|PREVIOUSLY on the review of Clipse's We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2:
Apparently the editor of this album is one Clinton Sparks, who is referred to on the album as "Mr. Get Familiar"...
Most of hip-hop is devoted to talking about hip-hop itself, and Clipseis very good at pointing out just how awesome they are.
...'get familiar' seems to be the major theme of the mixtape, as not only is there a sample of some kid saying "get familiar" throughout the album, but most (probably all; again my ignorance betrays me) of the songs are heavily sampled from current hits (the ones I recognized were Beyonce, The Game, and Kanye West). The idea is that all the songs are going to be 'familiar' to the listener, as the beats are stolen wholesale and reworked in their own fashion. It's kind of fitting that they decide to engage in this kind of pop cannibalism...
At least you can get it cheap.
...celebrating their novelty while at the same time preying on pop culture, because the characters Clipse portrays themselves as are crack dealers, people that prey upon the dregs of society yet pride themselves at their ability to inspire addiction. They say, "I sell nose candy; Willy Wonka", and, in a hip-hop fashion, they have interesting enough personalities to make the comparison apt.
At a few interludes on the album, they stop everything to explain parts of the album, like what is meant by "the black card" (apparently the black American Express card could purchase a small nation if you felt so inclined) or why some exclusive song is on the album. These are charming...
The interludes make the album feel like an E! Hollywood Exclusive, or anything on E!, really. Flashy editing of nuggets of preview-reel-ready best-of moments interspersed by interviews aboutthe project itself, and just like E!, the program's logo appears in every single transition (here, the logo is "Clinton Sparks").
...and even unintentionally hilarious at times: when they inform you the Black Card can purchase a jet, a jet noise flys by, and then to end his rant, he declares "Zing!" — a word I didn't realize anyone cool was allowed to say.
It's an interesting exercise, especially in today's fads of remixing and "mashups" and "remashmixups", because the soul of rap was always in the way that the beats were used and what you say over them. In that respect, this album is a huge success. The 'get familiar' strategy throws you off at first because you're consciously thinking about the hook from the original beat. But crack and unlimited credit cards aside, one thing Clipse does have is talent, and they're able to make each song their own.
AND NOW, the exciting conclusion!
This stuff isn't my thing, but I didn't mind listening to it at all. It was catchy, and Clipse are talented enough to still remain interesting. Buy.
|This is hard to deal with because at times it's really damn good. The beats are solid, dirty, sometimes spare and funky, sometimes achieving a kind of sonic density that hearkens back to the pre-copyright enforcement heyday of Public Enemy. Check out the sampled drums on "One Thing," which eke an endless groove out of only two loops, balances against the rock/noise assault of "Maybe". And.. "Black hands on white keys, I've seen this, I'm Ray / Got more white in the hood than the KKK / the Grand Wizard of that almighty blizzard." Pusha T makes coke dealing terribly poetic. These guys are miles smarter than the Game, realler than Ghostface, more memorable and lyrically dexterous than Beanie Sigel. The problem (predictably) is that there's only so long that I can listen to them talking about coke, money and jewels, no matter how cleverly they dress it up. Closer to the end of the album, thankfully, they start talking more about the downside of the lifestyle - but it feels like a natural progression of the aura of doom hanging over the whole affair. There's no booty rap here, no fantastic exploits, just an endless grind of money and hate dressed up nice in pretty pretty beats I feel like I could sit and talk to these guys, particularly Pusha and Malice - they're honestly self-reflective, after the trash talk is done and they can let themselves spread out a bit. "Enough with women - they don't see past the chain, I don't see past the ass. Two can play the game", says Malice on "Ultimate Flow". By the standards of coke rap gender relations, that's positively enlightened. But the next line is really something - he thanks god for cocaine because if he didn't have it he'd have nothing to rap about. It's weird how close he is to breaking through, transcending himself. He stops just short.
Let's talk about structure for a minute. The first half of the tape is about how awesome the Re-Up Gang (which is how this album should properly be credited - the Clipse only make up a third of the group) is and how they are very good at crushing their enemies. The second half deals with the ins and outs of coke dealing, and also, maybe, a little emotional shit: particularly after Pharrell, the beatsmith and definite odd man out of the group, raps on "Maybe", calling himself the black John Lennon. And for the two songs that're left at least Mal and Pusha seem comfortable with leaning back a little bit and letting some vulnerability cloud their lyrics. This means that for me at least the second half is a lot more pleasurable to listen to, since there's less squirm-inducing misogyny to contend with - but the exceptional beats redeem a lot of these tracks, like "What's Up", which feels like an instant classic even though they're not rapping about a hell of a lot. I should mention that the MCs I haven't mentioned yet, Liva and Sandman, aren't bad, either -- they have deep, buttery flows, in the Biggie Smalls vein, and they each explore a different aspect of that style. Liva is unexpectedly dexterous, Sandman is laid-back and velvety. But in terms of content they're journeyman MCs, solid but not nearly as interesting as the Clipse.
This is good enough to merit a buy (although, of course, you can't -- this is a mixtape, the samples resolutely uncleared.) It's worth downloading just to hear "Maybe", which apart from its amazing beat has a hook that, if you're at all sociologically minded, will make your brain hurt -- "You and me - baked ice cream and BBC..."
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email: dranger aatt gmail doott com & ajhoffer att gmail dott com