"A social misfit adrift in a complicated world" These troubled times have sapped the sense of humor from many artists, which makes songwriter Eef Barzelay's deadpan sarcasm especially refreshing. But the leader of New York alt-country band Clem Snide said his irony should not be mistaken for insincerity. The snide side of the material is just the defensive humor of a social misfit adrift in a complicated world.
Clem Snide will play at Birdy"s on Sunday night.
"If you're trying to get at something truthful, you have to dance around it a little bit," Barzelay said in a phone interview.
"I like to mix the sarcasm and the more sincere, because the conflict between those two things is what makes the words interesting. I'm more dubious of people who claim to be earnest."
The band performs Sunday at Birdy's Bar & Grill. Tickets are $10, and with any luck, guitarist Pete Fitzpatrick will reprise his amazing bowed banjo trick from the last tour. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. with special guest Cub Country, led by Jeremy Chatelain of Jets to Brazil.
After a decade of obscurity following its start as a Boston punk trio, Clem Snide has been picking up steam recently. Its latest studio release, 2001's The Ghost of Fashion, won high praise from roots-rock hipsters and an honorable mention in Rolling Stone's year-end critics' list. A cut from the disc, "Moment in the Sun," was briefly the theme song for the NBC series Ed.
Since then, SpinArt Records has re-released the 1998 album You Were A Diamond, a unique and beautiful experiment built on acoustic guitar, upright bass, cello and violin. The next album, Soft Spot, will be released in June.
The defining characteristics of Clem Snide are Barzelay's lyrics, voice and persona, which suggest something like a post-punk Woody Allen or an especially lovelorn Fox Mulder. The arrangements can vary from acoustic mountain waltzes to edgy electric power pop, sometimes in the same song.
Barzelay offers no apologies for the seemingly innocent country songs that self-destruct in midstream, or the roller-rink organs and feedback that erupt among the fiddles and twangy guitars.
"I wouldn"t feel right trying to cop some kind of country-music authenticity," he said. "I was born in Israel, grew up in New Jersey. Those are two things that don't really qualify you for the Country Music Hall of Fame."
As for the lyrics, Barzelay said his words have to grab listeners by the collar, shouldering more of the burden as his song structures become simpler.
"When I was in high school, I was probably a better musician than I am now," he said. "I think at some point when I was sitting in my bedroom trying to write songs on my crappy acoustic guitar, I thought, "Well, I've got these three chords to work with. Maybe I should focus more on the lyrics."
A recurring lyrical thread on The Ghost of Fashion involves a beleaguered everyman orbiting a glamorous, self-centered woman whom he finds both irresistible and laughable. The clearest example is a song titled "The Curse of Great Beauty":
Those paper cuts kept you from writing
A poem so epic and true
About how you are cursed with a beauty so great
I'm sure that it's hard being you
Barzelay said his songs are not about specific people, though they do represent types he is familiar with.
"I think the guy in the song realizes that she's kind of ridiculous, but at the same time he's seduced by her beauty, so therein lies the conflict and drama," he said. "It just bothers me, that boring kind of vanity, people that are attractive and just love themselves for no particular reason."
Even outside the relationship realm, Barzelay can dish up memorable images with apparent ease, as in the tune "Long Lost Twin":
The highway's a ribbon It makes a gift of everything ...
The sea of taillights that we all must swim
Tonight I feel like Elvis longing for his long lost twin
If the themes seem dark, that's no accident. Barzelay culled the 13 tracks of Fashion from a long list of accumulated songs. "I realized I could put them in two categories, my bad-love songs and my good-love songs, and I decided to make The Ghost of Fashion mostly bad-love songs," he said.
"The next record is going to be all the good-love songs. So that will be a nice yin yang sort of thing." Fueling that happy spirit, in part, is the birth of a son last summer, which prompted a break from touring. Barzelay is enthused to be back on the road, though he'll miss the family. "I'm ready, I need a break emotionally," he said. "It's going to be strange to be out of the house, and it's going to be tough on the wife, but rock 'n' roll lives on."
Scott Hall is the music columnist for the Daily Journal of Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus. Visit him online at www.onthebeat.org.
Coming from the subconsciousBy Jim Walker It's not that Eef Barzelay doesn't care. Huge and abstract things like war and strife and misery, he says, are too big for him to try to grasp in songs. The lead singer and songwriter for Clem Snide prefers to tackle the small things and let them stand for something bigger if they will. "I don't look at the world that way. I look at stuff on an intimate level," he says. "I'm not interested in writing facts. I'm not interested in writing truths." When he has, in the past, given this a shot, it failed. "Anytime I try to write about something - about this idea or that - it never works," he says. "It has to come from the subconscious. And then I just go with it." That means don't expect any anthem rock on Clem Snide's new album, set for release in June. "I'm the opposite of Bruce Springsteen - another New Jersey guy," Barzelay says. "I write small songs about nothing where nothing really happens. I write about the space in a room, the air in a room, not about attitudes." And he's not about to give into the pressure of being fashionably political. "I hate the Village Voice. They are always telling people they have to take a political stance to be in sync with the time," he says. "You have to take the political stance they deem appropriate. I'm not into that." Unlike Springsteen, Barzelay wasn't born in the U.S.A. He grew up in the Middle East, leaving Israel for Jersey during elementary school. Still, he isn't getting political about all that's happening in that part of the world these days. "I don't really have much of a political point of view at all," he says. "At least not enough to put into a song." Clem Snide was in the middle of a tour when the terrorist attacks occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. The band added a cover of the Ink Spots' song "I Don"t Want to Set the World on Fire" and dedicated it to Osama bin Laden. The chorus goes, "I don"t want to set the world on fire / I just want to light a fire in your heart." The birth of his son last July has made Barzelay's world even smaller. He spent the last year mostly at home with his wife and child. He feels that most Americans are like him, concerned about their families, about the small details of day-to-day life. "More people watched the conclusion of Joe Millionaire than Dan Rather"s interview with Saddam Hussien. That tells you where this country is. If that's not ironic, then I don"t know what is."