The story behind Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's debut was nearly as good as the music itself: A bunch of nobodies record a debut album of guitar-based indie rock then release it with no label, distribution, or marketing strategy. Whether by luck or design, the album garners blog praise and solid reviews and goes on to sell more than 33,000 copies. Ostensibly, it succeeded on the strength of the songs, which were certainly part of the appeal: The album was accessible but retained the band's considerable quirks.
When they toured, Clap Your Hands sounded surprisingly like a party band, playing up the bouncy rhythms and excited tempos. But it can't be denied that the album sold as much on the basis of that story, as appealing as it is romanticized, as on the quality of the music.
So here begins Chapter 2: Some Loud Thunder, which has been likewise released without a label but is distributed through now-defunct V2 and produced by Dave Fridmann of Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev fame. With the higher profile comes added pressures: If their debut combined some of the best aspects of indie rock -- Alec Ounsworth's intelligent lyrics and scrawled vocals and the band's tight dynamic and complicated structures -- then Some Loud Thunder indulges in the genre's middling tendencies: willed obscurity, challenging arrangements with no payoffs. Most songs here meander wildly without ever taking off. "Love Song No. 7" has an enticing melody hidden somewhere beneath Fridmann's clamorous production, but "Good-bye to the Mother and the Cove" is repetitive and not much else. Even the overtly danceable "Satan Said Dance" grates more than it motivates.
Not that Some Loud Thunder doesn't have its joys. Once Ounsworth stops caterwauling, the closer, "Five Easy Pieces," achieves a miniature epic stature on its Cure-ish coda, and "Underwater (You & Me)" achieves a valedictory momentum that must sound great live. Best of all is "Mama, Won't You Keep Them Castles in the Air and Burning?," which chugs along languorously as Ounsworth describes the staid suburban life he doesn't want to live: "So now I'm out for political favors, a salary that corresponds with labor/Big house and a morning paper, good fences that make good neighbors."
Ultimately, Some Loud Thunder foregoes the proud populism of the band's debut for a deliberate difficulty, and that mistrust of their own strengths and their audience's fevered reaction almost turns their story into a tragedy. -- Stephen Deusner