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Clap Your Hands, and try to ignore all the hype

October 08, 2005|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Most concert tours are all about the headliner, with opening acts usually placed on a bill as a complementary sales-booster or a political favor.

But every now and then a concert package hits the road with a chemistry and timing that make it more than the sum of its parts. People still recall the prodigious pairing a decade ago of Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr., and these days all eyes are on the pairing of two young East Coast bands, the National and (deep breath now) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

The package hit the Troubadour on Thursday, where it turned out to be something like a carnival show followed by Shakespeare. Clap Your Hands made its Los Angeles debut with an impressively energetic and accessible but artistically conservative opening set, while the top-billed National stormed the heavens with an ambitious, challenging brand of rock noir.

Under normal circumstances, the latter would have been the clear standout, but there's more going on here than just a couple of bands playing their sets. The tour has become a lightning rod in the indie-rock sphere, sparking debate over questions of substance, hype and backlash. It's been enough to cloud the once simple experience of seeing two distinct but harmonious bands go through their paces.

Clap Your Hands is the band bearing the brunt of the "hype" accusations, paying the price for receiving a notoriously glowing album review at the influential Pitchfork website (www.pitchforkmedia.com) earlier this year, and then for emerging from September's College Music Journal Convention in New York with the kind of buzz that attended the rise of Arcade Fire a year ago.

The quintet, based in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, has kept its indie credentials impeccable, releasing its self-titled debut album entirely on its own, establishing a distribution deal without the assistance of even an independent record label.

In addition, this is the first time Clap Your Hands has performed outside its home region, all of which has tipped the balance of interest away from the tour's headliner, the more established National, a New York band with a history of steady artistic and audience growth over the course of its three albums.

The critical reaction in newspaper and website reviews has been to apply a brake to things by pointing out Clap Your Hands' limitations and lamenting the injustice of all the trendy attention coming its way. And at the sold-out Troubadour on Thursday it was a little disconcerting to see a third of the crowd leave the club after Clap Your Hands' opening set, leaving the National to play in a room drained of much of its energy.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is young, uncertain and full of fire. The comparisons with Arcade Fire extend beyond a similar momentum. As with the Canadian band, the five-piece group's driving, sweeping and quirky rock grooves combine with singer Alec Ounsworth's high, plangent voice to evoke Talking Heads.

At one point Thursday you even had to zero in to make sure it wasn't an old Heads song they were playing. Clap Your Hands opened with a fierce take on Bob Dylan's "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," hit a primal garage-rock sound early in the set, and rolled through several songs from its album with a relentless energy and occasional sloppiness.

Ounsworth has a beetle-browed intensity, but neither he nor his bandmates showed the charisma to open up and expand on the alluring mystery of such songs as "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth" and "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood." It's a promising band that needs to learn how to pull listeners in as well as mow them down.

The National's more varied, textured arrangements, often featuring a prominent electric violin, frame the deep, haunted vocals of Matt Berninger, a singer who suggests both Nick Cave and Joy Division's Ian Curtis.

Stylized and confessional, the National's songs offer a mix of nocturnal intrigue and pop catchiness, and they serve up such memorable refrains as "I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain."

But compared with its brisk predecessors, the National was deep, dark and demanding, and they had a tough time Thursday generating enough energy and atmosphere.

You just had to clap your hands and say "next time."

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