The End of Love
"Urban art-country enthusiast" and Clem Snide front man Eef Barzelay has a rare songwriting gift -- one shared by John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and very few others. He simply looks at the world differently than most of us: His wonky imagination zigs while ours zags, and he comes up with line after line that make you say, "How the hell did he think of that?"
Even when he's being silly, he's always memorable. Take "Tiny European Cars," for example: "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?" Or how about this doozy from "Collapse": "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."
Even his lucid moments express common thoughts in most uncommon ways. Take "Jews for Jesus Blues," a response of sorts to "Amazing Grace." "I opened my heart and I let Jesus in / with the promise that I would be free of my sins / but I only felt guilty that he died on the cross / Now that I'm found I miss being lost."
And as a genuine weirdo, he seems to have little patience for the fake kind. He sideswipes them on the anthemic and jangly pop-rockin' title track: "Are you still feelin' bad / 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." And then he moves in for the kill on ramshackle country closer "Weird": "You tell me you're different / tell me you're strange / you say that there's something wrong with your brain / well your mother found God / and your dad likes to drink / but you're not as weird as you'd like me to think."
Plainly the venom -- the "Snide" half of the band name -- is back after Soft Spot, 2003's gentle ode to the pureness of love. Barzelay has described The End of Love as a synthesis of that record and 2001's sneering anthology of narcissistic hymns, The Ghost of Fashion. Barzelay pulls it off very well thematically, balancing the snarky tunes with "Made for TV Movie," a sweet-natured and poignant chronicle of the rise and fall of Lucille Ball (with heart-melting backing vocals from what sounds like a three-year-old girl) and the feline and hilarious love vamp, "Something Beautiful."
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Since Barzelay and cellist-producer-keyboardist Jason Glasser parted ways after Ghost, the band's arrangements haven't been as towering and their intricate chamber pop tendencies have all but gone. Still, the band's sound is as balmy as an April gulf breeze, a superb mélange of country, pop, rock and jazz. Barzelay's Hank Williams Sr.-meets-Michael Stipe voice is a perfect vehicle for his words. Pete Fitzpatrick contributes some whacked-out solos on his guitar and banjo, both of which he sometimes plays with a violin bow.
In short, this is one of the bands that should be getting more of the love Wilco has gotten the past few years, a band whose music you will listen to out of joy and not a misguided sense of hipster duty. John Nova Lomax
Broken verse, glam rock, miscellaneous Brit-pop sounds and a thin voice that wavers in and out of tune: a recipe for disaster, right? And yet Michigan's Cass McCombs somehow combines these elements into PREfection, one of the most unique albums of this fledgling year. Backed by keyboardist Natalie Conn, drummer Dutch E. Germ and bassist Trevor Shimizu, the Michigan lyricist barrels through songs such as "Tourist Woman" and "Cuckoo," making observations such as "Like Brughel's Miser in the flame / Quite literally, you're insane." A latter-day Morrissey, McCombs takes aim at hypocrisy ("City of Brotherly Love") and fragile hearts ("She's Still Suffering"), but the subtext is always himself and his view of the world, a narcissistic perspective fascinatingly rendered. Mosi Reeves