It was a trend that began around the mid-2000s. Instead of trying to get a break through conventional marketing and distribution of music, scores of small indie bands began using the internet to promote their songs and albums. It was around this time that MP3 websites and blogs, online music magazines and digital music stores started mushrooming and many indie bands, in true DIY spirit, began trying their luck in grabbing the attention of some of the more influential of these channels.
Ubiquitous as they are now, back then music-streaming sites were yet to make their presence felt, and bands, especially those that lacked the support of established labels, were left to their own devices. Many of them released their own music on CDs, touring to promote these and sell them at gigs. Some were able to use the internet effectively. One such pioneering act is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (CYHSY). A project of Alec Ounsworth, the Philadelphia, US- based singer, songwriter and guitarist, CYHSY create meticulously put together indie rock. In 2005, when they released their self-titled debut album, it was the internet that helped them get traction among listeners and critics. Many music blogs and the very influential Pitchfork Media site, now owned by Condé Nast, gave them the thumbs up. Soon, demand outstripped supply and the band had to re-print the CD.
CYHSY’s success with their debut album was a clear demonstration of the power that independent music blogs can have—and that major record labels had begun losing their once predominant clout in promoting new artists or new music.
CYHSY’s debut was not extraordinary. The songs sounded familiar, evoking comparisons with a range of other great rock acts from the past, such as Talking Heads and Joy Division, as well as several more contemporary bands, such as the lo-fi Yo La Tengo. Yet, such influences notwithstanding, CYHSY did not seem derivative. Their sound had pop hooks; and it was elegantly crafted.
Ounsworth’s nasal, bird-like vocals, constantly changing notes and songs with their often indecipherable yet literate lyrics, made the debut album instantly appealing to indie music fans. The top song on it, The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth, had abstract lyrics (Once the dogs have quit their barking/ Son, my neighbour said to me/ Know the emptiness of talking blue/ The same old sheep) but it had an inexplicable charm and quickly became an earworm.
To some extent, the media’s exultation over the band’s marketing strategy may have influenced people’s opinion of CYHSY. Pitchfork, which gave the band a rare 9 points, wrote this about their debut album: “Indie rock has received a much-needed kick in the pants, and we have the rare chance to decide what a band sounds like of our own accord before any agency cooks up and disseminates an opinion for us.”
Unlike many bands whose promising debuts fizzle out when they aren’t able to follow them up successfully, CYHSY were not a flash in the pan. Since 2005, when they were a five-member band, they have released five more albums, including this year’s New Fragility, all of which have kept intact the attention to craftsmanship, meticulous production and overall aura of pleasantness that their music exudes. They now release music on their own as well as with other indie labels.
There have been some changes, though. First, the band is now more of a solo project by Ounsworth. And second, CYHSY’s latest album is a bit of a departure from their past works. New Fragility, which dropped earlier this year, has a title that is in keeping with the current situation. Although the uptempo pop idiom still marks their tunes, Ounsworth, now 43, addresses themes such as politics (for instance, in the opener, Hesitating Nation); mass shootings in the US (in the song Thousand Oaks); and a breakup (in the title track, New Fragility, where he sings: In a while, I’m going to wish it was over/ In a while, I’ll get so stupid and young/ In a while, I’ll come to remember/ I never want to take another chance on anyone.
Ounsworth indulges in considerable soul-searching in this album. His lyrics retain their eccentricity and the music is still hook-filled but there is a sense of serious introspection, probably a result of age, maturity and experience.
CYHSY and Ounsworth are now synonymous, as the latter enlists a rotating cast of musicians for recording and touring, playing music that he essentially writes entirely by himself. As a result, the new album is a deeply personal one. His own recent divorce and the generally depressed environment we are all living in have added a touch of melancholia to the music. Listeners may be tempted to compare some of the songs to bands such as Radiohead or R.E.M., or even the Pixies.
But what made CYHSY an internet-fuelled hit more than 15 years ago still holds good. They make unfussy, well-produced indie music that has appealing pop hooks. You can rarely go wrong with such a combo.
The Lounge list: Five tracks by CYHSY to bookend your week
1. Hesitating Nation from New Fragility
2. Thousand Oaks from New Fragility
3. Mirror Song from New Fragility
4. The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
5. Satan Said Dance from Some Loud Thunder
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.