The Big Easy has left its mark on Ounsworth’s debut solo album.
Charles Ubaghs 2009
Odd singing voices often go hand in hand with great pop music. Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Tom Waits are three famous examples, and they’re not alone. Numerous others have joined them in the ‘distinct voice club’ over the years.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman Alec Ounsworth has yet to hit the career heights of the illustrious trio mentioned above, but his voice certainly makes him a natural addition to the ranks. Pitched halfway between David Byrne’s oddball croon and the nasal wail of The Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, Ounsworth’s offbeat vocal chords helped make his band’s 2005 debut a firm favourite among bloggers and indie fans.
With CYHSY currently on hiatus, Ounsworth is now stepping out on his own with Mo Beauty, his official solo debut. Recording in New Orleans with long-time Los Lobos producer Steve Berlin and a group of notable local musicians – including Galactic drummer Stanton Moore and former Meters bassist George Porter Jr – Mo Beauty finds Ounsworth subtly shifting gears from the quirky indie-pop that’s defined his output to date. He does it by transplanting his trademark tics to a lush, bombastic bed of Dixieland-tinged pop.
Ounsworth claims that Mo Beauty is not a New Orleans record – except for the gentle lament of Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (song for New Orleans) – but the Big Easy has clearly left its mark on the album. Idiots in the Rain is littered with brass horns and a boogie-woogie stomp while Me, You and Watson kicks about with Hammond organ riffs and cranked-up blues guitar licks. For all the record’s pomp, though, it’s the sombre What Fun that takes centre stage with a sparse, country influenced soundtrack and Ounsworth’s pleading cries to an absent lover.
And yet while Mo Beauty is perfectly palatable, it’s also marked by Ounsworth’s refusal to step far out of his comfort zone. He may be surrounded by a group of gifted musicians, but they’re used to smooth out Ounsworth's kinks instead of helping to create the bold, manic visions he occasionally hints at.
Mo Beauty may showcase Alec Ounsworth’s unique voice for now, but he’ll need to take greater risks in the future. Otherwise, he’s likely to be drowned out by those who follow.