Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – New Fragility: Album Review

Enigmatic, quirky, confident and ambitious – that’s the new 21st Century Indie collection from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Release Date:  12th February 2021

Label: CYHSY/Secretly Distribution

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Download

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have/has been around for a long time.  The brainchild of enigmatic 21st Century indie pioneer, Alec Ounsworth, CYHSY started life in 2004 when Alec enlisted Sean Greenhalgh to provide drums, Robbie Guertin to contribute guitar and keyboards and brothers Lee and Tyler Sargent to donate (respectively) guitar and bass to provide backing for his quirky, occasionally political, inventory of songs.  The band was quick to identify the potential of the internet as a means to publicise their work and they built an early following to the extent that, reportedly, Davids Byrne and Bowie were both spotted at some of their 2005 shows.  One by one the band members fell away until, by April 2014, following the release of their fourth album, Only Run, the band consisted solely of Alec Ounsworth.

Ounsworth himself is considered to be the possessor of one of music’s most distinctive voices.  That’s certainly an apt description, and it’s not a voice that will appeal to everyone.  The closest description I can come up with is something like an anguished Andy Fairweather-Low, but it does suit the songs, particularly the more plaintive love ballads, of which Dee, Forgiven is perhaps the most outstanding example amongst this latest collection.  The songs are actually quite wordy and the lyrics sound interesting, but the vocals are sometimes lost in the mix, and the lyrical sense is sometimes obscured by Alec’s vocal inflections. And that’s a pity.

New Fragility is CYHSY’s sixth album and follows 2017’s The Tourist which was the first album to feature Alec as the band’s only member.  It’s a confident, ambitious album that wears its home-made credentials proudly and effectively.  Most of songs have an enjoyable early-90s indie feel to them; instrumentation is generally kept simple, although some quite marvelous strings-effect keyboards and adept harmonica playing are used to enrich certain songs, particularly the comparatively widescreen Innocent Weight, the epic Went Looking For Trouble and Where They Perform Miracles, a song which is, at least for me, the album’s outstanding track.

The first signs of the impending emergence of New Fragility came in October 2020, when the work in progress was heralded by two singles, Hesitating Nation and Thousand Oaks.  Unusually for CYHSY, both of these songs are politically motivated – perhaps the first examples of such motivation since the band’s debut album in 2005.  Hesitating Nation expresses disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the acceptance, prevalent here as well as in Alec’s native US, that the mentality of getting ahead at all costs is a “quality” to be rewarded.  Thousand Oaks reflects upon the mass shooting that took place in 2018 in the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks California, in which 13 people, including students, a police officer and the perpetrator were killed and considers the impotence of the US government in relation to such events.  Both songs are sober reflections on issues that continue to plague America (in the case of Thousand Oaks) and just about every developed nation (in the case of Hesitating Nation.)

Elsewhere, New Fragility, the album’s title track and CYHSY 2005 are urgent, poppy tunes with some interesting backing vocals and floaty string effects that add a dreamlike quality. But the album’s true highlights are kept to near the end…  To describe Went Looking For Trouble as epic is not an overstatement; it’s a song that covers many themes and bases – starting as a soft acoustic ballad, it transforms first into a Lennon-like anthem – along the lines of Mind Games – dabbles with Sgt Pepper-era psychedelia and touches on pastoral folk, before reaching an inspirational soul/rock sway-along climax.  Even better, Where They Perform Miracles is a wonderful, uplifting acoustic number – the folkiest thing on the album – on which Alec’s most impassioned vocal is perfectly complemented by some lovely discrete keyboard and yearning harmonica – this is the track to come back to!

Things are brought to a close with the oddity that is If I Were More Like Jesus.  Recorded almost as an afterthought, it sounds like (and possibly is) a field recording – a feel that is enhanced by the distorted vocal and piano.  This is a song with the potential to join Where They Perform Miracles as an album highlight, but that potential is somewhat hidden by the crude recording and Alec’s vocal experiments.  Another great pity, but perhaps this is a song that can be revisited in the future.

So , New Fragility is an interesting, quirky, and largely successful outing from a bold imaginative performer.  Sure, there are some rough edges, but that’s the nature of the game and the highlights provide a more than adequate compensation for any perceived shortcomings.  CYHSY is a project worth watching, and over here in Blighty, we may the opportunity to do just that if the scheduled CYHSY tour to go ahead in September.  I sincerely hope that it does!

Watch the official video to Hesitating Nation from the album here:|

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