Clem Snide, which took its name from a character in William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, is a vessel for the alternately sweet and sardonic songwriting of New Jersey native Eef Barzelay. An unabashed sentimentalist capable of finding the truth in Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” the heartache in Ritchie Valens’ “Donna” and the affection in Lou Reed’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” Barzelay is also a writer of love songs true and genuine enough to surpass such efforts. Behind Barzelay’s parched, plain-spoken, nerdly nasal whine and equally dry wit and wordplay, Clem Snide’s music is, by turns, sparse, atmospheric and playful in a manner that accentuates the casual intimacy and uncomplicated emotion of his compositions.
Formed in Boston in 1991 as a self-described “noisy, self-destructive punk rock trio,” Clem Snide released a tape and a 7-inch before singer/guitarist/songwriter Barzelay and bassist Jason Glasser moved to Manhattan in 1994 to attend art school. The band reformed in 1995 with Glasser on cello and violin and Jeff Marshall on upright bass. The second Clem Snide was a hushed chamber pop trio more adept at lullabies and laments than feedback-drenched vamps.
You Were a Diamond finds the trio up front about its influences (sawing at instruments like John Cale, singing about Nick Drake and covering Hank Williams), searching to find a footing for their sleepy sound. Walking a line between down-tempo and dull, they occasionally trip across it. Songs that are strong on their own are diminished by the album’s lack of variety. But the opposite applies to “Nothing Is Over, Not Yet” and “I Can’t Stay Here Tonight,” which suffer out of context but stand out on You Were a Diamond. Other highlights include the brighter “Chinese Baby,” done solo acoustic by Barzelay here and later with a full arrangement on The Ghost of Fashion. “Yip/Jump Music” (title borrowed from Daniel Johnston) is propelled by a insistent sawing riff; the opening “Better” is buoyant pop, a contrast to the exceedingly deliberate tunes that follow. The real gem, however, is “Nick Drake Tape.” As Glasser makes like Cale over Marshall’s bouncing bass, Barzelay picks through two chorused chords that wouldn’t sound out of place at a 1950s high school formal and invites his girlfriend to ignore an unwelcome birthday call from her father on an autumn evening and curl up with him on the floor and listen to Nick Drake. The intimacy and economy of the lyric are Barzelay at his best, while the arrangement — fleshed out by some hushed feedback during the break — suggests better things to come.
Your Favorite Music is a significant step forward. Adding drummer Brad Reitz, keyboards (most often organ, all played by Glasser) and a little electric bass and backing vocals gives the band’s songs considerably more color, but leads one to wonder if Barzelay’s songs and singing here are more enthusiastic because of the band’s increased facility, or did the songs he came up with for this album necessitate the expanded instrumental palette? Either way, Your Favorite Music is solid throughout, the only exception being the forced lyric to the up-tempo “I Love the Unknown.” Barzelay mixes in a country shuffle (“Exercise”), parties like it’s “1989,” basks in the afterglow (“Bread”), professes blissful denial about being dumped for a black man (“African Friend”), recalls the awkwardness of a past relationship (“Loneliness Finds Her Own Way”), and refuses to die for your sins (“Messia Complex Blues”). The last of these, a playful country blues, is a fitting climax to the album, clearing the way for the coda, a dreamy rendition of “Donna” which sacrifices Valens’ pop stylings to drive home the lyrics’ heartache.
After finishing the album, the band changed drummers, bringing back Eric Paull, who was in the band’s Boston incarnation and played on the only two tracks on You Were a Diamond to have drums. Clem Snide officially became a quartet for The Ghost of Fashion with the addition of Pete Fitzpatrick, another Boston friend, on guitar and euphonium. With the new lineup and Glasser producing for the first (and only) time, Clem Snide created their best album.
The Ghost of Fashion makes perfect use of the expanded instrumentation, not only Glasser’s keys and Fitzpatrick’s euphonium, but also extra hands on vibraphone and a collection of horns. Each song has the ideal arrangement, be it the classic jangle-pop of “Moment in the Sun,” the country-tinged bossa nova of “Long Lost Twin” (“tonight I feel like Elvis longing for his long lost twin”), the cheerful folk-pop shuffle of “Don’t Be Afraid of Your Anger,” the nearly a cappella rendering of “The Curse of Great Beauty” or the drunken New Orleans funeral dirge of the concluding “No One’s More Happy Than You.” The album is also perfectly sequenced and paced. For example, the largely instrumental space-lounge crescendo of “Evil vs. Good” gives way to the jangle pop “Moment in the Sun,” which ends with a two-minute rave up that yields to “The Curse of Great Beauty,” which segues into the wistfully nostalgic “Joan Jett of Arc.” That last song, about Barzelay’s first sexual experience, is armed with early ’80s pop culture references and a heartbreaking melody. Barzelay’s lyrics here are more slyly obtuse than on previous efforts and frequently hilarious (“I have a lot of things to say / and you’d be wise to listen good / I think that hunger war and death / are bringing everybody down”) while maintaining his knack for intimacy and poetry. The Ghost of Fashion is his strongest collection of songs and an absolutely brilliant record.
The Ghost of Fashion brought Clem Snide an unexpected surge of attention when “Moment in the Sun” was used as the theme song of NBC’s Ed. That led to Moment in the Sun, an EP which includes the album track, a single edit, “Your Favorite Music” remixed and three strong new tunes, two of which are Barzelay alone on acoustic guitar. That same year, spinART reissued You Were a Diamond with two excellent bonus tracks from 1996.
Brendan Fitzpatrick (a cousin of Pete’s) replaced Marshall on bass, and Glasser left to start a family, making Clem Snide a loose collective of musicians with Barzelay and the Fitzpatricks the only permanent members. Glasser did participate in the sessions for Soft Spot, appearing on every song but one, but veteran producer Joe Chiccarrelli (American Music Club) took over behind the board, reducing Glasser’s influence. Primarily written in the throes of a new romance which bloomed (ultimately into marriage) during work on The Ghost of Fashion, Soft Spot serves as a romantic yin to Fashion‘s more cynical yang. The album is a meditation and tribute to love itself, with a simpler, gentler feel than its wide-ranging predecessor, more in keeping with Your Favorite Music. The opening “Forever, Now and Then,” specifically, is strongly reminiscent of that album’s “Bread.” Rather than a step backwards, however, Soft Spot is a rich, evocative album that incorporates skills honed on Fashion, from the rave-up choruses of “Action” and the celebratory horns of the power pop “Happy Birthday” to such delicately beautiful meditations as “Find Love” and “Strong Enough.”
Not long after Soft Spot, Clem Snide released a cover of the Christina Aguilera hit “Beautiful.” The band’s version rescues the Linda Perry composition from Christina’s over-emoting and rocks harder and straighter than anything else in their discography. The EP also contains Soft Spot‘s “All Green,” radio performances of “Nick Drake Tape” and the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” (sounding a lot like a Clem Snide song), and a playful new Barzelay composition about a high school classmate with socially debilitating asthma that ends in a 30-second explosion of thrash punk. The non-US version of the EP has a completely different track selection.
Paull joined Glasser in quasi-retirement following the release of Soft Spot, so a series of drummers did the ensuing tours and the Barzelay-produced When We Become, which features contributions from two members of Lambchop but not a note from Glasser.