Instead, they effortlessly merge classic jangly pop with pedal steel twang and occasional jazzy sax flourishes--simple enough, yes, but no one else really sounds like them, and few write songs that are as simultaneously witty and heartfelt, as funny and touching, as those of singer/songwriter/guitarist Eef Barzelay.
After a pair of acclaimed early releases, Clem Snide upped their public profile with 2001's The Ghost of Fashion (spinART). The album's witty explorations of love and life's little disasters boasted songs like the shuffling "Long Lost Twin" ("Tonight I feel like Elvis longing for his long lost twin"); the lost-youth lament of "Joan Jett of Arc" (It was all you can eat/at the Sizzler that night/My steak-burning Joan Jett of Arc"); and "Moment in the Sun," a contemplation of how to become successful while remaining true to yourself that became the theme song for the NBC TV show Ed.
Some of Barzelay's songs are deceptively simple, like "Nick Drake Tape," from Clem Snide's 1998 debut album, You Were a Diamond. (A live version of the song will be included on the band's upcoming A Beautiful EP, which will also contain covers of the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror" and Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful.") Over a quiet, mournful oom-pah musical canvas, Barzelay, in just a few pointed strokes, sets the melancholic tone perfectly in the song's opening lines: "That Nick Drake tape you love/Tonight it sounds so good/As brown as leaves can get/And sleep is what you should." Somewhere toward the end, a cello enters, echoing the increasingly dark lyrics, which illustrate his disintegrating relationship with a girl with "that medicated stare." It's pithy storytelling of the highest order, flawlessly teamed with musical dejection, to achieve maximum effect.
On their irony-drenched first three releases, the band wasn't afraid of upping the tempo and volume from time to time, but the newest Clem Snide album, Soft Spot (2003, spinART), remains in mostly zip-less ballad-to-mid-tempo range throughout (with a couple notable exceptions, namely the propulsive "Action" and the horn-driven "Happy Birthday"), and it mostly leaves behind the romantic longing and nostalgia for affectionate musings on newfound love. Chalk it up to Barzelay's recent marriage and the birth of his first child, but the smart-ass narrator of yore is nowhere to be found on Soft Spot, replaced instead by a wide-eyed innocent who's slightly less clever.
While the album still boasts a good chunk of Barzelay's bon mots--"half-Jewish boys make kick-ass drummers" ("Happy Birthday"); "I caught you doubting yourself in the mirror/But you sure look good to me" ("Close the Door")--he's also content to trickle sickly sweet sentiments like "Everything that lives will someday die/But our love still grows/Because every moment must make way for one that's new/Before it does, remember I love you" ("Fontanelle"). Far from being the follow-up to The Ghost of Fashion that the band's fans were anticipating, the decidedly quiet Soft Spot still boasts a host of charms.