Irony is a lot like cholesterol. There's a good kind and a bad kind, and an unhealthy amount of the latter is clogging America's bloodstream.
What sets Clem Snide apart from any number of ironic indie bands is that bandleader Eef Barzelay realizes that irony should elicit more than a knowing smirk. Bad irony is an end in itself, a cheap in-joke at some absent third party's expense. But good irony exposes human vice and points to a higher truth. Oh, wait, that's satire.
On The Ghost of Fashion, Barzelay proves himself a master of satire. He's sincerely poking fun at himself and you, at the vanity in all of us. Take, for example, "Moment in the Sun," the theme from the NBC show Ed and Clem Snide's "anti-Jewel" song. Barzelay says he wrote it as if he were Jewel, which may explain why the network likes it, but knowing that Barzelay hates Jewel gives these lyrics a whole different spin: "I have a lot of things to say / and you'd be wise to listen good / I think that hunger, war and death / Are bringin' everybody down."
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Yes, that about defines ironic satire. (Or is it parody?) It's not merely Jewel he's after, either, it's all of us. Who didn't go through a phase in adolescence when we fantasized about becoming a big star and telling the world how to fix its oversimplified problems?
"Moment in the Sun" is the thematic keystone of The Ghost of Fashion, Clem Snide's epic 2001 release. Ghost haunted year-end "best of" lists and won the band its first national TV appearance (on Conan O'Brien), a coveted profile on NPR's music show and four blurbs of various lengths in Rolling Stone. The album is everything a great album should be.
It sticks to a theme -- in this case, narcissism and nostalgia (also known as collective narcissism). The songs segue into one another seamlessly, the elegiac '80s look-back "Joan Jett of Arc" propelling the album from one man's self-love to a whole generation's. Any male who reached puberty in the suburbs around the time "I Love Rock and Roll" charted will nod in agreement with Barzelay's "first love, my Joan Jett of Arc" -- not to mention the references to all-you-can-eat-night at the Sizzler, cool moms who drove fast Cougars and little pink houses whistling past. Barzelay has called it his favorite song on the album. Later, in "The Junky Jews," Barzelay tracks, without a hint of mockery, the careers of fallen child actors Corey Feldman and Corey Haim. The album ends with Barzelay begging for Calgon to take him away. It's oddly moving: More than just fliply referring to an old slogan, he's begging for the lost youth that went by the by the same time the jingle did.
On the musical end, from the crescendo of "Moment in the Sun" to the almost instrumental "Evil vs. Good," Clem Snide is better than cranked-up-headphones good. It's press-the-cranked-up-headphones-to-your-ears fantastic. It's music you want to crawl inside. Several members of the band studied jazz at the Berklee School of Music, and they add technical mastery to a soulful grounding in the roots of American music, as evidenced by a country feel that pops up in odd places. Cello, guitars, stand-up bass, banjo, drums, keyboards and vibes eddy like the waters of a sweltering whirlpool bath that leaves you feeling both cleansed and lightheaded. Calgon take me away, indeed.
So how could you possibly have missed this band its last time through Houston?
Because of September 11. Clem Snide was riding high off Ghost's outstanding critical reception when the Brooklyn-based band launched its national tour that fateful month. Things were going well until they got to Memphis. "We woke up hungover on some stranger's floor and flipped on his big-screen TV and watched the events unfold," says Barzelay. "It was very strange for me not being in New York. Very strange, and not good."
Four days later the band played a show at Rice. "It was bad," Barzelay remembers. "There was nobody there. Where were you? Not a lot of people were going to rock shows."
The shift in national mood didn't help. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter declared his short-lived "Death of Irony," and as most people don't know the difference between good irony and bad irony, Clem Snide suffered guilt by association. In the second half of September, unless you were U2, Lee Greenwood, Neil Young or whoever took it upon themselves to strike up "God Bless America," nobody was listening.
Barzelay, the child of kibbutzniks who spent the first six years of his life in Israel, is wary of the ultrapatriotism exhibited by songs like Alan Jackson's "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning," especially these lines: "I watch CNN but I'm not sure I could / Tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran / But I know Jesus and I talk to God "
"That was a little offensive," Barzelay says. "God was what got us into this, and for us to counter what they did with 'No, God is on our side, he's not on their side ' I hate that shit. God's got nothing to do with it. It's just crazy, horny, death-obsessed Arab youth, you know."
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Barzelay has pursued at length the question of God and his adherents of every persuasion, and he pretty much thinks they're all wrong. He now questions the merits of Israel's very existence. "It was probably a bad idea from the start," he says. "It was bound to happen sooner or later. I've gotten more anti-Zionist as I've gotten older.
"My parents don't like to hear that," he continues, "but why didn't they all just come to New York? They all come to New York anyway. There's more Israelis in New York than Israel, it seems to me. Everywhere I go I hear Hebrew. And the people that are causing all the problems are these crazy Hasidim from New York, and they're in the Occupied Territories fighting to the death over some rock that Abraham took a piss on. It just drives me fucking crazy, but these people need a purpose, I guess I think that for humans the most difficult thing for us to accept is that maybe there is no rhyme or reason. It's impossible for our brains to really comprehend that. We wouldn't have any anchors anymore; everything would just splinter out into every possible direction."
It's clear from talking to Barzelay and from his band's name (lifted from William Burroughs's Naked Lunch) that there's an intellectual bent to Clem Snide. Not that Barzelay wants to engage in idle book chatter. "We're probably more literate than your average rock and roll band," he admits. "But it's not something I want to wave around. I don't like it when songwriters talk about how they're reading Nietzsche or something. That's just not appropriate behavior for a rock and roller."
Jewel, of course, would disagree.