Indie starlets build on reputation with catchy material

By Rose Dichter Schapiro

In June 2005, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was yet another five-piece ensemble working out of Brooklyn. But, following the self-release of their first full-length record, buzz around the band in the indie scene reached an absurd level of hysteria. Within months, Clap Your Hands managed to sell out nearly every stop on their tour—even when they were just the opening band. They were pushed by dozens of reputable MP3 blogs, as well as internet behemoth Pitchfork. The band is purportedly even a new favorite of David Bowie. Lots of hype can truly be a striving musician’s best friend. College bands everywhere should probably build shrines to the relatively uncharismatic members of Clap Your Hands or at least corner them and ask exactly how they managed to accomplish this considerable task.

It continues. When they came last spring to the Metro, one of Chicago’s larger venues, tickets were sold out within days. The band, a five-man group originating from Philadelphia and New York, is still coasting on this wave of almost arbitrary success. Clap Your Hands played not one but two full shows at the Vic Theatre this week with Australian indie-pop collective Architecture in Helsinki. Though Clap Your Hands’ success may have a certain element of luck, they certainly manage to produce music that justifies the hype.

While performing, frontman Alec Ounsworth seems serious about making eye contact with everyone close enough to freak out. To replicate this in the larger auditorium, the lighting design shone spotlights across the audience every few minutes, virtually blinding them with bright pink light. It was a bit unnerving to find the attention directed on myself instead of the band, but that seems to be a prominent factor in Clap Your Hands’ musical success.

The fact that the band continues to impress increasingly large audiences is based primarily on their ability to connect with the individuals who sing along. Ounsworth exudes a certain kind of intelligent creepiness that conjures up memories of Talking Heads leader David Byrne. In fact, Clap Your Hands itself is often eerily reminiscent of Talking Heads, reworked for the new millennium; for example, Ounsworth mutters where Byrne enunciated. Talking Heads were made up of exuberant art school kids in crazy outfits, and Clap Your Hands is made up of slightly awkward young men in jeans who met at Connecticut College—not quite as much fun to watch.

Clap Your Hands debuted new, more twangy tunes on Monday night that were just as catchy and enjoyable as their old songs. The audience seemed excited about any new work from the band, which has been working on its follow-up for over a year and a half. The band is unassuming and clearly works hard on its music. The arrangements are tight, the dynamic is good, and they put on a beautifully orchestrated show. The band played in front of a background of whimsically illustrated clouds, picking out new melodies under a wash of jewel-toned lights.

The crowd responded best to “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth,” a song about coming out of nowhere to make it big, ironically expressing Clap Your Hands’ own unexpected success. “I won’t pretend to understand the movement of the wind, or the waves out in the ocean or how,” Ounsworth crooned, “I change softly, slowly, plainly, blindly.” None of us quite understand the rapid rise of this band, but their success is well received and well deserved.

The opener Architecture in Helsinki is one of the most adorable live acts today. While the seven-piece collective plays everything from bongos to keyboards to trombones, they somehow cultivate a cohesive sound. It looked like Halloween had come early, as the members of the band had all decided to dress like people from other bands. An incomplete list includes: a koala face print dress reminiscent of Animal Collective, a Field Music T-shirt from any lit-rock band, and a black shirt and thin red tie that seemed remarkably like Panic! At the Disco. Despite this strange variety of outfits, which matches Architecture’s original yet eclectic sound, the band put on a coherent show. They enticed the audience to sing along and dance with pleasant gusto. Later that night, exiting the Vic, an auditorium’s worth of concert-goers braved the torrential downpour and terrifying lightning, humming pleasant pop songs as they ran for shelter. Though we don’t quite understand how it all happened, we should at least be happy that it did.