opinion by MICHAEL WOJTAS
Nearly a decade after Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s eponymous debut, the divisiveness that initially surrounded the band feels comically antiquated.
Those ringing blogger endorsements and the accompanying web backlash that once made CYHSY into an unavoidable conversation piece have since lost all novelty. Revisiting their first record, or the 2007 follow-up Some Loud Thunder, it’s hard to imagine how those on either side of the argument ever managed to get so worked up about what amounts to a couple of catchy, off-kilter rock records. Now, three long years after the decidedly unadventurous Hysterical, and with most of the band’s original members having departed, the slate is totally barren. There's the sense that principle songwriter Alec Ounsworth doesn't know entirely what to do with the opportunity, but he's also open to covering his canvas with unexpected, much-needed new shades.
Not that Ounsworth’s original model is necessarily outmoded. Montreal upstarts Ought have just proven that anxious, yelping indie rock can say as much about living in 2014 as it did the mid-2000s or early-‘90s. But the flaccid Hysterical finally made true on what the detractors had been saying all along—a couple of quirks aside, it was MOR post-punk. Here, with percussionist Sean Greenhalgh and producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Tame Impala) as chief collaborators, Ounsworth builds on the minor advances of the quietly released, synth dominated Little Moments EP from last year.
Even back in the band’s heyday, the techy accents and spaced out atmosphere they arrive at on Only Run wouldn’t have sounded awe-inspiringly progressive (though we can all rejoice in knowing Ounsworth has spared us the secondhand embarrassment of having to hear him try to stay current by, say, forcing his strangled falsetto to get sensual over some Disclosure-influenced house rhythms). Opener “As Always” sets the pace with propulsive drums, breathy synths and drifty vocals, all recorded with plenty of space around them. It’s a careful arrangement that eventually folds in on itself, the layers finally overlapping into a wash of blissed cacophony. Ounsworth sings with less self-conscious eccentricity, and his once wordy stanzas have shrunk considerably. He’s learning to use his voice as an instrument, and choosing his words for their sound.
The modern krautrock of “Impossible Request” and “Cover Up” splice vintage Neu! with Nigel Goodrich-style digitization, though the end result is more free-flowing and less tightly-structured than either influence. This non-perfectionist approach to electronic fortification is a natural step forward from rickety, happy-accident sound of CYHSY, and Only Run marks an admirable enough attempt to explore territory that, if not new in and of itself, is at least fresh grounds for Ounsworth. But it also becomes devolves into just another holding pattern that’s rarely deviated from, and this new, only intermittently captivating reliance on texture comes at the expense of the earworms we’ve come to expect from the man who wrote “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth.” Good intentions alone don’t make melodies replay in your mind, and they don’t cause lyrics to stick with you after records end. The most optimistic light to view Only Run in is also the most condemning; it’s not so much a fully realized album as it is a promising blueprint for songs that haven’t yet been written. C