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I don't know much about shoes, but I know what I can't afford. And I can tell that the more uncomfortable they look, the more expensive said footwear is likely to be. A good number of the feet at a recent Clem Snide show were encased in pointy toes and lifted into uncomfortably angled heels. Above these cramped pumps, the four-piece Brooklyn band (relocated from Massachusetts a half-dozen years back) was cluttered between keyboards and upright bass on stage at Tonic, a small club on the Lower East Side generally given over to the avant excursions of acquired improvisatory tastes like Arto Lindsay or Derek Bailey. They serenaded their female fans, who wore classy, summery blouses woven from material like ornate crepe paper and printed with pastel floral patterns.
Clem Snide frontman Eef Barzelay admits that he isn't above being seduced by fancy shoes, billowy chemises, or other lavish appearances. "Love is only for the lovely," he announces to kick off the band's third album The Ghost of Fashion (Spin Art). And when he continues, "The beautiful were never meant to suffer," before trailing off into a mournful "I'm so beautiful," you wonder whose first person is being referred to here, and, if it is himself, whether or not he is being sarcastic. (Barzelay, who is no Jeff Goldblum, looks like a more handsome version of John Turturro.)
You can't always distinguish the objects of Barzelay's satire without the aid of, er, footnotes. Yet such help isn't always necessary to enjoy Clem Snide. I sure wouldn't have known that "Moment in the Sun" was the band's "anti-Jewel" song until Barzelay introduced it as such. ("I think that hunger, war, and death," his naive heroine declares, "are bringing everybody down.") With the Jewel parody, Barzelay highlights the fact that beauty-contestant-type singer/songwriters don't always fill their heads with more than Sun-In hair bleach. But he also uses the song to touch upon his great theme--suspicion of appearances--and to examine his second great theme: how easy it is to be beguiled by beauty nonetheless.
Barzelay often sets a sartorial tone with his own appearance, donning finely tailored dark suits and casually impeccable hair. His fawned-over stage presence proves that the world eventually goes easier on tall dorks than short ones. After all, there's a gangly appeal that nerds over six feet acquire once they get used to their excess of body, a charm never available to their squat counterparts, and Barzelay drapes that charisma across his demeanor with practiced carelessness.
His voice also retains something of the nerd within it. With endearingly gawky phrasing, yet no lingering self-pity, it suggests a kind of freedom that's nasal but not pinched. His lyrics are just as elusive and personal, which can make his train of thought tough to trail. But although Ghost of Fashion's stream of consciousness is free-ranging as ever, even when I can't follow Barzelay, he doesn't lose me. When he starts singing about Corey Feldman filming a Ten Commandments sequel on "The Junky Jews," for instance, I just tap my Converse-shod foot and hum along.
Though the opening track on The Ghost of Fashion, "Let's Explode," doesn't quite burst in midair as the title suggests, it still shifts a gear upward from last year's well-received but infrequently purchased Sire album Your Favorite Music. Even this fan found Your Favorite Music a trifle dour, as is the roots rock fashion. But unlike Barzelay faves Ron Sexsmith or Will Oldham, those depressive wallowings weren't ends in themselves. The title track, for instance, mused, "Your favorite music, well it just makes you sad," before plumbing the poetics of sadness as few morose songwriters are willing to do.
At times, The Ghost of Fashion also shows the band's jauntier mood, with the adornment horns and all of the other appurtenances of a full studio. But live, their most raucous track, Your Favorite Music's defiant "I Love the Unknown," remains their show-closer for a reason, leaping into a rocking abyss that the band merely hints at on disc. The power of drummer Eric Paul has always been restrained on the band's records, but that's not to trot out the cliché that "their live sound has never been captured on disc." Clem Snide's studio sound is simply more conversational and discursive than the straightforward propulsion they kick out on stage. And if fans experience Clem Snide through both live and prerecorded means, they will undoubtedly find something to their liking.
"Does anybody really get what they want?" Barzelay asks on "Ice Cube." The knee-jerk boomer response--that you just might find you get what you need--goes without saying in this milieu beyond need. Clem Snide is indie rock finally grown up right, with none of the lounge-ish affectations that afflicted previous attempts at ironic maturity. The band plays the soundtrack for just accepting yourself for what you are--economic advantages and snazzy apartment in Brooklyn, stock options and whatnot--and hoping to put off parenthood or at least marriage for one more summer. Emotionally, they'll also make sure there is a floor beneath which you won't drop. ("Your applause is like calamine lotion on my mosquito-bitten soul," Barzelay once sighed after a particularly rousing crowd response.)