ALLSTON — The cover of the debut record by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is an illustration of five abstractly humanoid figures writhing playfully as they acrobatically climb over one other, seeming to float in the air. The image on the band’s latest release is a photograph of its slouching frontman, glimpsed only partially, as his much-larger shadow looms eerily on the wall behind him.
This progression of iconography reflects the evolution of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which emerged in 2005 as a five-piece whose improbable indie success implied a path around the misfiring mechanisms of the music business. With the release this month of its fourth album, “Only Run,” the group is unveiled finally as the passion project of frontman Alec Ounsworth, who seems on a continual mission to escape the shadow of the expectations that accompanied his band’s earlier success.
“To me, there are honest records and then there are dishonest records, and you can kind of distinguish one from the other,” Ounsworth says in a phone interview from his business office. “You can hear when people are trying to play the game, and to fit a certain trend. I don't really like those types of records.”
CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH
The group’s eponymous, self-released debut sold tens of thousands of copies before the band had even signed with a distributor, barreling forward on the strength of its peppy but off-kilter rock energy and the enthusiastic endorsement of fandom’s then-emerging online hyposphere.
A more sonically ambitious follow-up made a smaller impact, and was followed by a four-year break that saw Ounsworth release two solo albums. The group’s third album, “Hysterical,” could have been seen as a return to form by some diehards, but also felt like a one-foot-in, one-foot-out gesture toward the careening energy of the debut.
‘I think a lot of people have this bizarre mis-conception that because there aren’t as many guitars on it, that it’s a change of direction.’
“It was about how we can make this sound a little bit like the first record without sounding entirely like the first record,” Ounsworth confides. “So it kind of messed me up in the head. I think there are a lot of good songs on it, but at the same time I think it was a bit of a compromise. And I don't like to compromise. I also don't particularly like to look back. Just because a lot of people like something, it doesn’t mean that's what I think defines me.”
Since that 2011 release, three of the band’s original members have moved on, leaving only Ounsworth and drummer Sean Greenhalgh. Ounsworth describes the latter’s contribution to the new album as “some drums, and some synth loops that support in a peripheral way.” Nowadays, he’s touring under the band’s name with a group of choice sidemen he describes as “an ever-changing cast.” The newly constituted group plays Brighton Music Hall on Wednesday.
Personnel changes aside, the first-blush impression made by “Only Run” is its preponderance of synthesizers and relative shortage of guitar on some tracks. But Ounsworth is quick to highlight the stylistic continuity with even some of the fan-favorite tracks from the group’s debut (like “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth”), which indeed have hazy synths swirling around the mix. And a song like the new album’s title track does achieve the dramatic sweep and moody momentum of some catalog favorites, even if it gets there with help from different tools.
“I think a lot of people have this bizarre misconception that because there aren’t as many guitars on it, that it's a change of direction, but that's really an oversimplification of everything,” Ounsworth says. “Radiohead seems to get away with it without being turned into an electro-pop project, somehow.”
Though his comments often seem to have an edge to them when viewed in print (or pixels), in the context of a longer conversation they seem the outgrowth of Ounsworth’s genuine discomfort with describing or categorizing his music. And the kind of artistic freedom he displays on the new album is hard-won: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has self-released all four of its records, though there was a time when more-lucrative options must have been on the table.
“He has a very specific vision for a lot of these works,” says touring bassist Matt Wong. “At the end of the day they're his songs, and I think people relate to those songs, whatever he chooses to release it as.”
Earlier this year, Ounsworth played a series of intimate living-room concerts, featuring material from across his six albums. He says the experience bolstered his sense of optimism around the essential act of creating and sharing his music.
“Since everything quote-unquote blew up, I've been trying to get back to this connection with people,” he says. “I think a lot of people kind of get the wrong idea. I didn’t release the first album so I could get onstage and run around the world or anything like that; I released it because I felt I needed to do that. It wasn’t even necessarily because I thought I needed to have a career in music. I made the record for next to nothing because I believed in it. I can keep doing that.”