Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Alec Ounsworth: Mo Beauty

spectrumculture.com


An indie musician from Philadelphia walks into a New Orleans studio and records a quasi-Southern Gothic album with a small army of Crescent City players. What has the potential to be an unmitigated disaster instead results in one of this year's most varied and intriguing releases. Although cynics might see Mo Beauty, the sprawling "solo" debut from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman Alec Ounsworth, as little more than a vanity project or a fleeting stylistic diversion, its songs are uniformly strong and its style is wonderfully dynamic and original, even if Ounsworth's vocals are an acquired taste and almost certain to limit the record's chances of widespread appeal.

Though Mo Beauty features an unconventional set of contributors whose backgrounds and styles sharply contrast with Ounsworth's and the album is primarily culled from the musician's older material, the record holds together remarkably well. A barrage of various guitars, horns, synthesizers, drums, pianos and keyboards is used to create songs that are alternately raucous and exuberant - and always impossible to guess just where the hell the players will take each one. Guitars, drums and a swampy organ give "Bones in the Grave" an appropriately sinister tone, while "Me and You, Watson" moves with a martial drum rhythm and muffled organ. A trio of songs smack in the middle of the album - "That is Not my Home (after Bruegel)," "Idiots in the Rain" and "South Philadelphia (Drug Days)" - are all punctuated with drums, keyboards and numerous trombones that defy easy categorization. Despite the songs' seemingly meandering arrangements, there is a sense of control and craft to them, as each song sounds carefully rehearsed and executed but not overly produced.

For all the charms and eccentricities of these tracks, the quieter and more traditionally-arranged tunes offer the album's most emotional and gripping moments. Built around an acoustic guitar, stately piano and quiet baritone sax, "Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (song for New Orleans)" is the album's most accessible and memorable track. With its references to "rain and fire" and "high tides" and Ounsworth's understated vocals, the song plays like a contemporary elegy to this Southern city. "What Fun" moves at a faster but mostly deliberate pace, its acoustic guitars and organs accenting the song's wistful and nostalgic (or is that just bitterness?) feel and a pedal steel guitar mixed with an organ lending a dusty time-worn element to the song.

Ounsworth's vocals are suitably unconventional; he doesn't sing so much as nasally wheeze the words out. Sometimes these vocals threaten to go off the rails as Ounsworth crams words into some tight spaces - check out the singer's sporadic slurring on "Me and You, Watson," "Idiots in the Rain" and opener "Modern Girl (with scissors)," as if he's fighting to keep pace with the band behind him - but even in these cases the vocals are more exciting and unpredictable than pretentious or affected. The lyrics are likewise evocative, with specific phrases and images - "pages ripped from some holy book," "like an ordinary citizen tied up in the trunk of a car," "counting cars in South New Jersey" - offering enough ambiguity without feeling deliberately obtuse (though I swear the "all this useless beauty" line that shows up in "Modern Girl" has been used somewhere before...).

Those still clutching their dog-eared copies of CYHSY's self-titled debut should be placated, as Mo Beauty shares that album's spirit of genre-hopping without sounding derivative or intentionally difficult. If there's a stigma about an indie artist branching out for a solo foray, Ounsworth dispels such thoughts throughout this album, even if calling this album a solo effort is misleading. Mo Beauty moves with its own unique logic, its influences and intentions present but not oppressively so. What had the potential to be yet another exercise in gross self-indulgence best relegated to the boneyard of failed albums is instead one of this year's most creative and unclassifiable efforts.

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