The release of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s eponymous debut album quickly garnered a great deal of praise for the band, particularly for songwriter Alec Ounsworth’s sharp ear for pop melodies infused with quirky sensibilities. Ever since, Ounsworth has made it his mission to show listeners that his tastes are far more bizarre than CYHSY’s well-received debut would suggest. The band’s follow-up, Some Loud Thunder, was a more scattershot affair, marked by moments where tremendous pop songs were subject to what can only be called sabotage. Opener “Some Loud Thunder” showed the band to be as upbeat and charming as ever, or at least they would be if the song weren’t deliberately made to sound like it was skipping. Follow up “Emily Jean Stock” was even better, a lovely, jangling tune brightened with perfect vocal interplay, but of course this meant the band had to make the chorus a polarizing harsh clangor. Closer “Five Easy Pieces” boasts a beautiful chord progression, which is wasted over six minutes of musical stagnation and placid, reverb-soaked monosyllabic wailing from Ounsworth. These choices were never enough to fully ruin any of these songs, but betrayed a certain self-conscious need to be viewed as unconventional.
It would be reasonable to assume that Ounsworth was behind these disruptions, since he appeared to be the group’s musical leader. His latest release, one of two solo works during Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s temporary hiatus, muddies the picture further. Mo Beauty was recorded in New Orleans with an enviable list of funk and jazz musicians such as bassist George Porter Jr. of the Meters and drummer Stanton Moore of Galactic, which would imply that Ounsworth is attempting something a little more rhythmically complex than he’s used to. Moreover, although Ounsworth has previously preferred cleverness over emotion, given New Orleans tumultuous recent history, it wouldn’t be surprising to find some elegiac material on Mo Beauty.
The reality of Mo Beauty is actually far less interesting. While Ounsworth’s first solo album is slightly more eclectic than Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s output, the hooks are a little harder to come by. Of course, swapping hooks for a more diverse musical vocabulary seems like a fair trade, but Ounsworth is really not stepping too far outside his comfort zone.
Which brings us to the session players: it’s frequently easy to notice the benefits of pulling Stanton Moore into the mix. His lively and technically flawless proficiency is one of the more winning elements of Mo Beauty, particularly on “That Is Not My Home (After Bruegel),” and “Me And You, Watson,” but it’s difficult to tell what the other players brought to the table, other than sheer reliability. Not to impugn Porter Jr’s work, but the bass playing on Mo Beauty is predictably capable, little more, which is hard to reconcile with the fact that this man played on “Cissy Strut.”
Likely, Ounsworth’s failed to bring much in the way of truly inspiring material. Mo Beauty follows a baseline competence that rarely wavers in either direction. The backdrop of New Orleans allows for some occasional shots of animated brass and a few opportunities for Ounsworth to indulge in a few mild homages to Tom Waits (notably on “Bones in the Grave”), but these nods feel slight and perfunctory. Ironically, the album’s most significant achievement is the unassuming and subtle “Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (Song For New Orleans),” the one song where Ounsworth overtly mourns the hand dealt the Big Easy. Generally, songs that touch upon tragic near current events come off as crass and exploitative, but Ounsworth strikes the right chords with this doleful and sweet song. Frankly, Mo Beauty could use more moments like it.