Mo Beauty is Alec Ounsworth’s second solo album this year (and first for a label). They’re his first works since he began a (seemingly) purposeful mission to overspend the goodwill he had accrued after his band, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, became one of the first bands to break big via the Internet in the modern era (a.k.a. 2005). First was the (I suspect) terrible-on-purpose sophomore album, Some Loud Thunder, then a few years of radio silence amidst talks of possible band break-ups. Then earlier this year, Ounsworth announced plans to release two solo albums. Flashy Python’s Skin and Bones, an album that is essentially Clap Your Hands Say Yeah minus the other dudes in the band and with a few guys in Man Man and Dr. Dog, and Mo Beauty.
Mo Beauty, since Ounsworth announced it, has been the more promising venture, because it pairs his froggy, unfortunate voice with a coterie of New Orleans session men known for contributions to New Orleans jazz and R&B albums. The album largely lives up to its billing as a more song-based project, with Ousnworth’s metaphorical lyrics placed center stage, but it’s the session men who shine here. They give the songs an authenticity that is hard to replicate and hard to ignore.
For Ounsworth, picking New Orleans as the place to launch his proper solo career probably has less to do with the publicity that comes with picking the crime scene of the greatest tragedy in American history, and more to do with the hymnal nature of these 10 tracks, and the unique sounds New Orleans musicians could bring to the project. Dusty brass gives “That Is Not My Home” a torch song immediacy, while the sauntering creep-jazz of “Bones in the Grave” drives home Ounsworth’s morbid tale of kicking bones. The band serve as atmosphere-bolstering bystanders on “Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (Song for New Orleans),” the only time Ounsworth lets his surroundings creep into his lyrics. But it’s not all serious. “Idiots in the Rain” introduces a joviality that Ounsworth has never really put on display before, and “Me and You, Watson” is just short a backing chorus to be a ’70s-era soul stomper.
The short recording time (a few weeks) of Mo Beauty begins to show in moderate flashes, as a handful of tracks here are on the slight and inessential side. But the main story here is Ounsworth rehabbing his image. With help from seasoned pros, he’s delivering (to an extent) on the promise many saw in him after Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. He might not ever write another “Upon this Tidal Wave of Young Blood” again, but at least Mo Beauty is better than Some Loud Thunder.