When a band forces themselves out of your consciousness as hard as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah did with their 2009 “indefinite hiatus,” it becomes difficult to remember why you found them compelling in the first place. The Brooklyn/Philadelphia quintet arrived with a statement on their manic and cartoonishly brilliant self-titled debut in 2005, only to falter on the polished sophomore follow-up Some Loud Thunder. It was disappointing to see a group with such raw momentum like CYHSY lose their full-powered steam.
Over the past four years, things did not seem promising for CYHSY’s furure. Plans to records a new album were scrapped; frontman Alec Ounsworth released his undeniably gorgeous love-letter to New Orleans Mo Beauty and another album, Skin and Bones, with Flashy Python; other members just seemed to move onto side producing and performing gigs. It appeared that the epitaph for group was written.
That was until May when the band reared back to life and announced their third LP, Hysterical. But while the band is technically back, something seems missing on their new record. Like a movie you haven’t seen in years, there is an air of familiarity but also an odd feeling like the puzzle pieces don’t match up. Four years is a long time to be gone and Ounsworth wants you to come back into the irreverent party. But the question is: Are we willing to?
CYHSY were always a hard band to pin down stylistically, and, in a way, that is what helped define them. The comparisons were varied from listener to listener. Tom Waits, Neutral Milk Hotel and the driving pop of the Talking Heads were always in the grab bag though the group never full fit any one of them. But on Hysterical they feel neutered, and the enigmatic quality has been replaced by blandness.
To be certain, there are high points on Hysterical that peek at the off-kilter pop that made CYHSY so fascinating. “Maniac” is a twitchy, jaunty pop cut with Ounsworth’s great melodic pop-and-lock singing out front and center; the acoustic driven “In a Motel,” a precious introspective song about touring, finds the band at one of its more personal moments; the jerking and driving “Ketamine and Snakes” is Ounsworth at his most pop-centric.
But, when it’s boiled down to the basics, what is missing are the blistering pop hooks. There are no entry points into most of these cuts for the listener to dive headlong in, and Ounsworth has turned inwards—inevitably isolating the audience. Mostly, Hysterical is lost in a hazy cloud that is more Dan Bejar than it is David Byrne. What got your body moving schizophrenically leaves you feeling empty and unfulfilled at the conclusion.
For what it’s worth, Hysterical feels like a deeply personal and emotional record for the band. On its 12 cuts, CYHSY are trying to rekindle some of the ethereal power they had on their debut and on moments of the follow-up. The jokey, subversive attitude has been buried underneath a need to grow-up. They are indeed progressing as adults and musicians on Hysterical and other projects. And like all of us, as the years pass by, youth—and what made it so special—slips away.