Israel-born Eef Barzelay founded Clem Snide in 1990 as a punk trio; 11 years later that description no longer applies. The band has edged more and more toward traditional sounds, although Barzelay has retained the angst-ridden, drawling, street-punk vocal tone, which sounds something like Gordon Gano or Lou Reed's tender side or Counting Crows' Adam Duritz with a shiv tucked in the back of his pants, or perhaps the way you would imagine Lee Harvey Oswald singing, if you can imagine such a thing. All those Hank Williams comparisons are coming from Yankees who don't know no better, bless their little hearts, the same ones who confuse any hip woman with a twang with the second coming of Patsy Cline (except that Barzelay did listen to Hank long enough to master the waltz's glory).
With his lyrics, Barzelay often relies on cryptic imagery, though to his credit, he presents tangible pictures instead of pure abstraction. On Clem Snide's latest release, The Ghost of Fashion, lines like "Don't be afraid of your anger / I'll eat it with mustard and wine" put one a-ponder -- at the very least on the juxtaposition of chardonnay and Dijon on the palate. There are others in this vein, too, like "Tonight I feel like Elvis longing for his long-lost twin," which are delivered with a sly grin that's anything but a passé sneer. Barzelay's irony springs from a well of reverence; it isn't there merely for its own sake, and the emotions he expresses are paradoxically as powerfully felt as they are vaguely worded.
Barzelay's high point lyrically here is the nostalgic Gen-X anthem, "Joan Jett of Arc." For those of us who reached puberty around the time La Jett was atop the charts, few can resist the following elegiac lines: "My black heart was heavy / Her mom's Cougar was fast / As little pink houses were whistling past / and it was all you can eat at the Sizzler that night / my stake (steak?)-burning Joan Jett of Arc."
The music is anchored by the core band, a quartet featuring Barzelay's guitar, Jeff Marshall's upright bass, Jason Glasser's cello, violin and keys, and the kick-ass drumming of Eric Paull. Pushing against this anchor are the oceanic currents of banjo, saxophone, trumpet, flute and vibraphone, and the result is a CD that often sways like a ship peacefully adrift in a calm. Occasional storms blow in, and when they do, you better have the hatches truly battened. "Evil vs. Good" finds a groove as warm, swift and strong as the Gulf Stream, and "The Curse of Great Beauty" spends itself in a dramatic climax that sounds like klezmer in a drunken sailor's dream. It's rare to find a band that can both drift and swell as oceanically as Clem Snide, or one that puts together an album as cohesive as the sea. Clem Snide is that band, and this is that album.
To contradict Barzelay, who wails, "I don't wanna know me better" at the end of Ghost opener "Let's Explode," there are few better ways to spend a Saturday night than getting more acquainted with this odd young master of alt-alt-country and his excellent band.