Apocalypse Pretty Soon!
Behold the woes Pitchfork has had in coming to terms with urban art-country enthusiasts Clem Snide, who are in town this week in support of their new album, The End of Love. I can think of no one band that illustrates with bolder clarity the weaknesses of the most influential Web site in indie rock.
Five years ago, reviewer Michael Sandlin gave Snide's gorgeous chamber pop/alt-country album Your Favorite Music a vicious 2.1 (out of ten). Sandlin saw the band as incompetent parodists of country, purveyors of "silly, oblique wordplay with music as mere afterthought." The guys tried too hard to be hip, Sandlin opined, and came up with something he called "lo-fi post-irony country vaudeville." The fact that many fans had fallen for this Sandlin attributed to mere fashion. "Your Favorite Music is nothing more than a bad joke; one your favorite neighborhood hipsters pretend to get, for fear of being ostracized by whatever indie-centric social milieu their lives depend on. If you're an outcast like me, you don't mind admitting these songs aren't even as childishly amusing as your roommate's new architecturally-unsound haircut."
While I can't claim to be the exalted pariah, the voice crying in the wilderness of Conor Oberst haircuts and faded Little League tees that Sandlin is, I beg to differ.
Anyway, Snide's magnum opus Ghost of Fashion was next, and Pitchfork turned to John Dark for a review. Dark spent two paragraphs taking Sandlin to task for his review of Favorite Music, and then pretty solidly reviewed Ghost, at least until it came time to assign it the all-important grade. Dark dismissed it with a ho-hum 7.0. (Too bad it wasn't an instrumental Icelandic hip-hop EP; surely then it could have cracked the 8's.) Still, Dark said Snide was "climbing definitely climbing."
Wrong, said Pitchfork's William Bowers, definitely wrong. Bowers took on Snide's next full-length, Soft Spot, the band's quiet and gentle ode to the positive side of love that served as the flip side to Ghost's "salute" to narcissism. In a case study in smugly pretentious, Dave Eggers-wannabe, pukesomely cutesy, self-adoring writing that is the hallmark of so much of this century's so-called smart set, Bowers turned in one of the most loathsome reviews I have ever read. Read it here (pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/c/ clem-snide/soft-spot.shtml) and weep for the future of America. But if you can't bear to, I'll re-mewl Bowers's case for him: "Love and sincerity give me the cooties. I want hate, puns, narcissism and irony!" And then he gave it a 2.9.
So let's see -- one album is too hip and ironic, and the next-but-one is too sincere. Which is it? And why does it matter? I mean, did either of those two reviewers sit back and actually listen to the music on those records, or did they simply wrench themselves into martyred agonies while trying to decide how cool Clem Snide really was?
"Soft Spot got shat upon by the indie-rock elite, and that made me very angry," Barzelay says now. He's at his new digs, in Nashville, where he moved from Brooklyn just before the release of The End of Love, whose title track is a direct response to reviews like Bowers's: "Are you still feelin' bad," he sang, "That your mother left your dad / are you still sure that everybody lied? / Guess what, your pain has been done / to perfection by everyone / and the first thing every killer reads is Catcher in the Rye." Also hilarious album closer "Weird," whose chorus is a shouted "You're not as weird as you'd like me to think," seems like an assault at self- proclaimed outcasts like Sandlin.
"Yeah, it's the same theme I've always had: People need to get over themselves," he continues. "It's all a kind of arrogance and narcissism -- that's what it boils down to. I don't tolerate that in my fellow human. [Laughs] I won't stand for it!"
It's not just hipsters that Barzelay has his sights on this time around either. "Jews for Jesus Blues" and "God Answers Back" take the God squad to task, though the subtlety of the lyrics has fooled some reviewers already. "Scenesters and Christians I was going after on this record," he says. "Christians seem to think they own God these days. We got a review recently in Jane magazine, and the person that reviewed it said at the end, 'Oh, newsflash -- they're Christians.' She thought we were Christians." (For the record, Barzelay is Jewish.) "It's, like, Jesus Christ! I'm just trying to blur that distinction between red state and blue state, liberal and Christian. I hate all that shit. Not that I have such lofty goals, but that's what it feels like looking back at it." (Or as he put it in the band's new bio: "I like to imagine this record playing in the background as a red state and a blue state -- maybe Tennessee and New York -- secretly meet at a Comfort Inn off I-40 and have angry, awkward sex.")
He's also out to blur the line between what's real and surreal. Barzelay's lyrics have always been evocative and more than a little touched by the bizarre, but on The End of Love he goes all out with gems like these: "Tiny European cars are dropping from the sky / their wonderfully efficient engines fueled by Spanish wine / maybe just a sip / to help us get a grip / Did you know Isaac Newton was a virgin when he died?" and "The pedophiles did their rendition of 'You've Got a Friend' / and everyone had to admit that it wasn't half bad / But they still felt uneasy / fearing they'd be dismissed as a fad."
So, Eef Barzelay, where the hell do you get that stuff from? "God only knows where that shit comes from," he says. "The thing that was different for this record was that I wrote most of the songs in the van, while we were touring, without a guitar, so I would really focus on the words before I even thought about the music. It was fun -- I was trying to go big. I usually write in a small space -- a room with maybe two people in it, where something was happening, but not much. But for this, I wanted to go apocalyptic or something. Apocalyptic in your mind. I was feeling that way at that time."
Postscript: Pitchfork reviewed The End of Love during the writing of this story, and the reviewer seemed unaware that the album could easily be construed as a direct assault on their site. This time Stephen Deusner was the author, and he praised the album's attacks on hipsters in the title track and also on "Weird," which, Deusner wrote, "effortlessly pops the bubbles of the self-proclaimed oddballs who 'aren't as weird as you'd like me to think.' " Too bad too many of those people work with Deusner. Oh, and Deusner had a lot more good stuff to say about the record, all before he slapped it with a 6.7 out of ten, thus ranking in roughly the bottom 10 percent of all records that site has reviewed this year and below the score to the Xbox game Chaos Theory, Gruff Rhys's boring Welsh-language solo CD and William Basinski's double-disc salute to "the hisses and hums of insect life" and "metamorphosis via reiteration." Gotta admit, Clem Snide isn't as "cool" as any of that.
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