A Beautiful EP, the latest from alt-country outsiders Clem Snide, may be a stopgap release for completists only, but it does serve an important function for the band -- it drives another nail into the coffin containing Clem Snide frontman Eef Barzelay's sense of irony. Given the near-180 turn the band took going from 2001's bright, snarky The Ghost of Fashion to last year's warm, lush, paternal Soft Spot, no one should be surprised by Beautiful, but it definitely confirms the band's decision to push sentimentality to the fore.
So it's a testament to the "New Eef" that he plays a cover of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" straight. Barzelay's had run-ins with divas before -- see the Jewel-baiting "Moment in the Sun" off Ghost -- and "Beautiful" seems like a ripe target for a tongue-in-cheek cover by any number of bands (it's Christina Freakin' Aguilera's "Beautiful", fer cryin' out loud!). Barzelay's nasal voice makes the song sound like a joke, and Barzelay will never be mistaken for Brad Pitt, but there's an undeniable sincerity leaking through. Plus, with a few New Wave flourishes, the band's take on the song rocks harder than anything they've released in a while. Love it or hate it, but call it an anti-novelty song.
Beautiful's other cover, of the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror", while more obscure, is a better fit for the band, post-Soft Spot. Recorded live at a radio station, "Mirror" lets Barzelay fall comfortably into the husband/parent/protector role he seems to cherish now, half-whispering lines like "I find it hard to believe you don't know / The beauty that you are / But if you don't, let me be your eyes / A hand in your darkness, so you won't be afraid" over a delicate violin. It all sounds like it could shatter into a million shimmering pieces, and it falls into that small category of Lou Reed songs that are actual love songs and not heroin-odes-disguised-as-love-songs (paging "Perfect Day"...). It's an amazing cover that shines a light on a great song and shows a band that knows how to play to its strengths.
Those of us who miss the Clever Eef (and I count myself in that group) won't go away empty-handed (or -eared) either. The story-song "Mike Kalinsky" starts out as an acoustic character sketch about an asthmatic outsider who the jocks at school thought was gay and who listened to Joy Division and the Misfits. Just when the songs seems to be spinning its wheels, Barzelay lays out a huge set up of just how dorky this guy is -- SPOILER ALERT! -- Barzelay's narrator catches Kalinsky a few years down the road, fronting a punk band. Eef, out of nowhere, launches into Kalinsky's punk song -- "I couldn't even blow out a simple match!" -- while the band rages behind him. The thought that Kalinsky was so defined by his asthma that it informed his songwriting brings a smile to my face, even a few days after first hearing it. Sure it's a gimmick, and as Daffy Duck once observed about blowing one's self up (and it also holds true for joke-songs), "It's a great trick, but you can only do it once." But Barzelay's wit and wordplay remain as sharp as ever, and that's no novelty.
Of course the "old" songs on Beautiful are no slouches either. "All Green" from Soft Spot is no less charming six months since its release, all warm bass and buzzing keys and plinking guitar. It's the sound of summer here in the dead of winter (sorry Antarctica; blame my Northern hemisphere-centric worldview). Meanwhile, a live acoustic "Nick Drake Tape", culled from the same session as "I'll Be Your Mirror", is sparer than the original, its clean lines unveiling beauty and sadness.
Most EPs these days don't warrant too much scrutiny -- they basically a band's MASH notes to collectors -- but A Beautiful EP is an excellent snapshot of Clem Snide circa 2004: charming, funny, sincere, beautiful, and one of America's finest indie rock bands.