Artist: Alec Ounsworth
Label: Anti- Records
Due Out: October 20th
It's been a busy year for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman Alec Ounsworth. Between appearing on soundtracks, fending off the band's breakup rumors, releasing an album for side project Flashy Python and now this, things have been hectic, to say the least. However, of all those activities, perhaps this one was the biggest labor of love. Never has Ounsworth sounded more truly honest than he does on Mo Beauty. The pomp and circumstance from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's debut is long gone, but so is the disappointment of the follow-up. So maybe it's a new beginning for the singer. Or at least, we can hope so.
"Modern Girl (...With Scissors)" starts the album off as a relaxed and centered rock piece at first. Weaved within a solid attempt to sound like Andrew Bird, Ounsworth creates a disjointed and quietly-panicked world for himself and his music. By song's end, it progresses into experimental territory-- where the artist can be comfortable in spurts-- as a saxophone changes the scenery altogether. Next, the album shifts toward more familiar territory, albeit for another artist. The off-kilter, progressively sinking feeling of "Bones in the Grave" sounds an awful lot like Modest Mouse, as it alternates between fits of light and dark.
"Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (Song for New Orleans)" is the first heartfelt number on an album possessing a fair amount of them. Its hymnal nature attempts to reach out to the people of New Orleans, four years removed from Hurricane Katrina. It remains quaint with a modest use of electronic keyboard and strings, and never pours on the condolences too much. Even though it probably would have had more of an effect a few years back, the sentiment is still recognized and appreciated, as we shift towards a more foreboding sound on the next track, "That Is Not My Home (After Bruegel)." Starting off as a dark jazz number, it errupts into pop soon after. Surprisingly, it might just be the most pleasant thing Ounsworth's ever written, as he meanders over a background seemingly made for a movie score.
"Idiots in the Rain" is another song that starts off with a much darker ambience than it eventually turns out to portray. It sort of cruises along as a bar room rant just a few minutes before last call, as it seems our narrator is searching or calling for something/someone desperately. That call is not answered on the next track either. "South Philadelphia (Drug Days)" is about as crazy as it sounds. With a sound I'd like to dub urban tropical, it gives off a vacation vibe in a drugged stupor, especially when it starts experimenting with some kooky psychedelic distortion. It's the most fun track on the album, completely stress free of its context, and loving it.
But joy is not the theme of "What Fun." regardless of its name. Ounsworth plunges himself into some soft, playful self-pity. It's a sad and regretful commentary about the past, and he's obviously damaged by its after-effects. Still, he manages to transition nicely into "Me and You, Watson," a loud and brash number that almost sounds inherently Irish. A strong percussion section and some slick southern riffs guide it toward rock 'n' roll, as well as some more of that Modest Mouse influence that continues to seep through. If nothing else, the song has conviction, something he usually only touches upon.
And then his emotional state just falls apart. On "Obscene Queen Bee #2," he digresses into a love-struck refrain. Rolling in from the background are cymbals and a soft organ. He's understandably frustrated with women who think too highly of themselves to give him the time of day, and it's depressing to him that people can act like that. Yet, throughout this mood, he seems to remain cool, smooth and confident, with a certain laissez-faire attitude about the entire ordeal. Not so on "When You've No Eyes," however. The soft and reserved ballad shows a man exhausted by everything he's discussed on the album, just spitting out some last thoughts on unresolved issues. The spacious instrumentation continuing behind him, seemingly ripped out of the first page of the post-rock handbook, help create a drifting sad lullaby by the ocean. He just wants it all to be over, and by the end, he's nearly begging for its completion.
Even in a state of emotional sadness, Ounsworth displays a craftsmanship in his music that allows it to excel. Vastly more advanced than anything he's put together before, Mo Beauty may not be a better album than Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's debut, but still manages to succeed. Perhaps it's all part of the long road back to making music consistently again. If so, I'd say it's a solid first step. Regardless of the road Ounsworth takes from here, something tells me it will lead to something great. Similarities include Modest Mouse, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Ramona Falls.
[Previously on Animal Noises: Flashy Python's Skin and Bones Now Streaming]