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The Fringes of Twang

Calexico and Clem Snide stretch alt-country to the breaking point

Way out on the fringes of this nebulous thing called alt-country are Calexico and Clem Snide, two opposite yet equal bands. Clem Snide is as East Coast as Philly cheese steak, and Calexico is as Southwestern as tacos de birria. Clem Snide reminds you of smoking manhole covers and cool nights in concrete canyons, while Calexico takes you to a sunburned vista of red rocks and army-green saguaros. About all they have in common are vague twangs, acute senses of melancholy, touches of jazz and the fact that they are two of the best bands in America.

The bands' lyricists are also on opposite ends of the spectrum. Calexico's Joey Burns obsesses on the borders between peoples, while Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay obsesses on the borders between people.

In conversation, Burns talks about the band's new album, Feast of Wire, and its tales of desperate illegal aliens and Tijuana lakes full of "sleeping" children. After all, this is the guy who recently paid homage to Carlos Fuentes in "Crystal Frontier."

Don't expect Barzelay (left) and the boys to live up to the "Snide" part of their name on the new album.
Don't expect Barzelay (left) and the boys to live up to the "Snide" part of their name on the new album.

When Barzelay is reached, he instantly steers the conversation straight into the pop culture ditch, talking about the grand experiment that was Joe Millionaireand, yes, the momentous musical event that is American Idol. After all, this is the guy who recently paid homage to Corey Haim and Corey Feldman in "The Junky Jews."

"Oh, God, American Idol," Barzelay groans. "All those people are so terrible to me, I just don't get it…Then Randy gets up and he's like, 'You just did it, man! You just blew the roofoff this place!' And I'm like, 'Really? He did?' "

Barzelay was less perplexed by Evan Marriott's selection. "I knew he was gonna pick Zorah," he says. "He's a good guy, he's a really nice guy. The great mystery about it is did Sarah give him a blow job or not?"

Then he riffs on semifinalist Melissa M. "She was so transparent, just telling him what she thought he wanted to hear. She wanted to be a 'mercenary' and bathe people's children. I'm not letting you bathe my child, Melissa…"

Barzelay says he won't be tuning in to Married By America, Fox's next high-stakes reality show, in which viewers pair off contestants and force them down the aisle. "I can't take it anymore," Barzelay admits. "I just can't take the pain in these other people's lives. It's so draining."

He means it, too. There's always genuine feeling behind Barzelay's mordant words -- sometimes righteous anger (the anti-Jewel diatribe "Moment in the Sun"), at other times genuine sympathy ("The Junky Jews"). Come to think of it, Melissa the Mercenary Who Meant to Say Missionary seems very much like one of the self- centered characters off The Ghost of Fashion, Clem Snide's 2001 classic, which explored narcissism and the dark side of love, and how the pursuit of the opposite sex can make us all look like idiots.

Barzelay says Soft Spot,the band's next album (tentatively scheduled for a June release), will take the opposite approach. Ghost "was a selfish record, and this one is more about selflessness and kindness and giving," he says. "All the songs are just sweet and straight-ahead. I just tried to write a love song as best I could."

Soft Spot is meant to complement Ghost of Fashion, and Barzelay confesses to a certain nervousness about how it will be received. "I know people kind of expect a tongue-in-cheek, sardonic flavor from Clem Snide, and they might not really get it on this record. I suppose that the people who are big fans of that might be a little disappointed, but I don't think so. I would hope that there is always a sincerity and sweetness on the Clem Snide albums."

Outside of recording Soft Spot, the band has been laying low. Barzelay and his wife had their first child, a son named Wylie, and thanks to NBC, Barzelay was able to take several months of paternity leave. Last year, NBC used "Moment in the Sun" as the theme song to the comedy Ed. Unfortunately for Barzelay, Ed's original theme (a Foo Fighters tune) recently came out of legal limbo, and now that's what you hear behind the opening credits.

"The winter of Ed's discontent ended and they got their Foo Fighters song back, so all those heartbroken Ed fans won't have to listen to my whiny voice ever again," Barzelay says ruefully. "It reminded me of how I had this girlfriend in high school, and she'd been going out with this guy since she was six. Senior year of high school she broke up with him for a couple of months and she got with me and then they got back together. Ed and the Foo Fighters were a match made in heaven. They just had to take a break from each other. I'm not knocking it, though. I haven't had to work for a year because of the performance royalties off of that. I should have named my kid Ed."

Now it's Calexico's turn to share in NBC's wealth. Last month the network licensed the band's three-year-old "El Picador" for use on the six-part series Kingpin, about the rise and fall of a Mexican drug lord. It's not much of a surprise -- rare is the Calexico fan that doesn't compare the group to Ennio Morricone and rave about the band's cinematic quality.

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