Monday, July 18, 2005

More New Music (Just A Little Hard-to-Find)

After I wrote my post on new music on the 13th, I decided to do a little more digging, to find out if there were some hot new albums I'd missed. As it turns out, there are two noteworthy albums released this year that have at least one thing in common -- you couldn't find either of them in stores about a week ago.

The first is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, by the band of the same name. Great title for an album, not so great for a band. Anyway, I first read about CYHSY in Pitchfork a month or so ago, and downloaded a few mp3s from their web site, but forgot about them not long after. I remember thinking (and my brother confirming) that the chorus of "In This Home on Ice" sounded suspiciously like The Who's "The Kids Are Alright," and otherwise enjoying it, but that was it.

The thing about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is that right now, they're an unsigned band. Their self-released album has gotten a lot of terrific press, and they've sold out of their first limited print run, but you can't exactly pop your head into a Best Buy and pick it up. On the other hand, though, this has helped fuel the word-of-mouth fervor and praise from the indie-rock chattering classes, so when they do sign to a major or indie label, I'm sure they'll do quite well.

Most reviewers (Pitchfork included) have compared the band to indie and alternative stalwarts My Bloody Valentine, Neutral Milk Hotel, Modest Mouse, and especially Talking Heads. In my opinion, they're actually musically closest to late Joy Division/early New Order; three or four songs sound to my ears like reworkings of "Temptation" or "Love Will Tear Us Apart." And their frontman's bleating voice sounds a lot like early David Byrne, crossed with Modest Mouse's Issak Brock and Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum. The best track on the album (and the one that won me over beyond the mp3s available on the web site) is "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth": a gloriously up-tempo abstract rock/pop gem.

Some of the songs are throw-aways and others are underdeveloped. Occasionally the band just seems to run out of lyrics: the last verse of "Over and Over Again (Lost & Found)" begins, promisingly, "You look like David Bowie," but peters out before it can develop. But when the songs are there, they're really there, and that makes this album one of the noteworthy releases this year.

The second album I've finally gotten a chance to hear this week is Sufjan Stevens's Illinois. I was telling a friend the other day that my love of Stevens's albums might seem like special pleading: so far he's made two albums (Michigan and Illinois) about places I've lived.

Illinois, for better and worse, is less personal and more historical than Michigan: fewer heartbreaking ballads about down-on-their-luck midwesterners and more songs about Lincoln, Carl Sandburg, and Superman. In fact, the Superman references got Stevens and his Asthmatic Kitty label into a bit of trouble -- original pressings of Illinois had an image of the Man of Steel on the front cover, which was later airbrushed out over fears of copyright infringement. As it turned out, AK had been selling the album for some time through their web site, but pulled the album from store shelves right before it was slated for wider release, so people who'd been waiting to buy the album from their local store weren't always able to.

Furthermore, one of these people was a sucker who shall remain nameless, who often orders albums directly from indie labels, and had done so on several occasions from Asthmatic Kitty in particular, but this time, and for reasons known not even to him, decided to wait, like a sucker. So now my copy of Illinois is on the way, but in all likelihood is regrettably Superman-free.

Still, through the magic of peer-to-peer software, I was able to download and listen to the complete album, and it is excellent -- musically very similar to Michigan, but with a bigger, more horn-driven sound. The sound isn't the only thing that's huge -- the album is 22 tracks and 74 minutes long. There aren't exactly singles that jump out either, although I'm awfully fond of "Chicago," "Come On Feel the Illinoise," and "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." -- this really is album-based (if not oriented) rock.


Robin said...

Two notes:

1. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has been borne aloft in large part by the 'music blog' sub-scene -- sites like music for robots, scissorkick, etc. And in the same way that conservative blogs trumpeted Rathergate as proof of their power, a lot of these music blogs are now going, 'Heyyy! We can actually make someone successful!' (Not clear if their attention to CYHSY preceded Pitchfork's or not, but it certainly built the momentum.)

2. I just can't get into Sufjan Stevens. I know this puts me at odds with approx. everyone -- including all the aforementioned 'music blogs,' which lately could more appropriately be called 'sufjan blogs' -- but still. I prefer the bite of the Bloc.

Chad said...

Boy, I need to get out more often.

Tim said...

To Robin:

2. Like I said, I'm a made-to-order Sufjan Stevens fan -- not only does he make music about the places I've lived, he steals from some of my other favorite acts -- Stereolab, Nick Drake, Vince Guaraldi, Jim O'Rourke. I'm helpless.

1. Likewise, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are musically and biographically tailored to Pitchfork's sensibility -- like one of their guys says in the "Best New Music" section, "What site do you think this is? We are fucking there." So-called tastemakers, whether official or unofficial, can only do so much, and I suspect they're better at introducing you to or reminding you about things than creating a climate of opinion. Although, maybe that's all a climate of opinion really is.