It's startling to revisit Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's 2005 self-titled debut and encounter how terrifically it has aged. Released less than two years ago, this album seemed so liable to freefall from its mammoth heights of Pitchfork beloved and hot Rolling Stones newbie to simple pop freshness. Surely, when the haughty publicity directed at the band's (then) no-label status receded, all would notice its middlebrow ability. But the Brooklyn/Philadelphia quintet has proven otherwise, especially as numbers like "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth" and "Upon This Tidal Wave of Blood" sound more and more like 21st-century standouts.
But the euphoric honeymoon of a well-received debut officially closes when the follow-up rumblings begin. Scrutiny tends to dominate, and so Some Loud Thunder, CYHSY's sophomore effort, will be a huge, curiosity-filled release, on par with You Could Have It So Much Better.
Is it any good? Absolutely.
Does it meet expectations? Yes, but it takes an oddly indirect route in doing so.
Don't be surprised, upon initial listens, if you're perplexed or even put off by the dense and scattered sounds of Some Loud Thunder. The production work madly tinkers with infectious pop structures, as warped fuzz and rattles are spread thickly about. But, for the patient listener, its rough contours smooth out over time and reveal sonic patterns of beauty and invention.
The album's initial notes adequately display its brand of cracked, almost battered pop. On the title track, an otherwise standard flow of straight guitars, popping cowbell and tambourine jangles is awash in electric fuzziness that creates a strange, off-key sensation. But its loaded sound does cohere into a piece of music both rousing and strangely pleasing. In a similar vein, the charming "Emily Jean Stock" features staples of classic pop — twinkling acoustics, handclaps and sugary backup vocals — but is also anchored by blown-up, electronic drum beats that were cribbed directly from "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." The theoretical layout of Some Loud Thunder is preposterous, employing the restless and unwieldy noises of perpetual collapse to form something palatable. But it's a success because CYHSY retains enough of the pop fixtures from its debut to counteract any truly grating sounds.
An emotive quality, though it seems thoroughly buried, surfaces with stellar results on such entries like the piano-heavy "Love Song No. 7" and "Goodbye to the Mother and the Cover," which is a peculiar hybrid of exotic textures and a wistful heart. Alec Ounsworth's literate lyricism mostly drives the surprising sentimental stir of the album (although the debut could boast an equal measure, but Ounsworth's yearning, garbled and often unintelligible vocals can block the immediacy of any emotions). At times, he plays a forlorn, sentimental sap who wants nothing more than to cradle love's certainty within him. Thus he identifies as "little boy blue" and doesn't resist cute or lame metaphors ("Your elevator skipping all my best-dressed floors") or grandness ("Am I the one you're thinking of when the sun goes down into the water?").
But there's scant space for sentimentality on the show-stopping, dancing burner "Satan Said Dance," the band's finest song yet and an early frontrunner for best of the year. Those who attended CYHSY's fall 2005 show at the Annex may recall it. The lyrical concept behind it is a trippy blast. It's an iconoclastic re-imagining of the inferno as an unhinged dance race with Lucifer as the dictatorial emcee. Sputtering rattles, dials and blips spike the computerized rhythm, making it crumble and then surge back to life. It's wildly inventive as a whole and should produce great revelry.
The second side one-two punch of "Yankee Go Home" and "Underwater (You and Me)" keeps the quality balanced evenly throughout all 11 songs. "Yankee" is a swelling, White Stripes brooder that, inherently, must be political. But who really cares when you have such a cool stomp of jabbing guitars?
"Underwater" should have been the finale — the miscalculated "Five Easy Pieces" needed to be axed. Its fully realized motif as an anthemic parade march would have made for a grand send-off, but on a work of such plentiful thrills, one annoyance can be forgiven. Furthermore, the note of unfettered love that it packs outperforms any of the pristine delicacies found on the Shins' undercooked "Wincing the Night Away."
Again, allow these sounds to work on you, and gradually, you'll come to glean the method behind their dense madness. CYHSY should not have been capable of pulling off this ambitious task. By rights, Some Loud Thunder should be panned as an over-conceptualized, two-and-a-half star misread that was for a later date with more seasoned musicians. But, instead, it stands as an improbably great album, an exotic companion piece to CYHSY's debut, and the inspired vessel by which we're offered the sweaty, demonic flair of "Satan Said Dance."
Rating: 4 out of 5