On their latest release, The End of Love, the Brooklyn-Nashville rock-country outfit Clem Snide appear to be having a bit of a personality crisis. The songs swing wildly between upbeat, Counting Crows-style rockers, and cool, country-tinged tracks that are subtly ironic, humorous, and compelling. For that reason, I was left jumping wildly back and forth while listening to this album. The same band that could make me smirk and smile on one track, could make me cringe in embarrassment on the next.
The one song I couldn’t stop playing over and over again was “Jews for Jesus Blues”, a hilarious yet acutely sad little ditty about a Jew repenting over his newfound acceptance of Christ. Over a humble shuffling beat that sounds straight off a Johnny Cash record, Barzelay’s twangy-yet-knowing voice begins an outrageous tale of spiritual searching, redemption, and regret, culminating in the singer’s lament, “Now that I’m found / I miss being lost.” At that point, a droning and melancholy guitar solo blasts through the mellow track, hinting at the melancholy and woe in this man’s spiritual dilemma. Tragedy and humor simultaneously — quite a feat, indeed.
It’s in these off-kilter numbers that Clem Snide shines. “Something Beautiful”, with it’s Tom Waits-style faux-flamenco stutter, is knowing, ironic, and a lot of fun. The ridiculousness of the band’s attempt at a sexy gypsy track, from the pained falsetto backup vocals intoning “You make me wanna!” to the brazen horn section boisterously blowing away during the buildup to the chorus, make the entire song an exercise in playing music with your tongue firmly planted in your cheek. Again, however, it’s Barzelay’s lyrical intelligence that makes the song memorable. Over an crescendo of guitars and horns, Barzelay, in his mellow and downplayed manner, sings, “You make me wanna break / break / break / break / something beautiful.” In all those pauses between him repeating the word “break” is a lot of ambiguity. It can be read to mean to that his lover is driving him so crazy that he wants to break (himself), but as you reach the end of the lyric, that aggression becomes directed outward. A lot of work is being done in just a few words, a sing of great, concise lyric writing.
This smart and sophisticated country-rock however, is punctuated by uninspired songs that sound like outtakes from Recovering the Satellites. “The End of Love”, “Fill Me With Your Light”, and “When We Become” are all cascading anthems driving by distorted guitars and insipid lyrics about transcendence and idealism. While these are entirely decent compositions, they lack the immediacy and complexity of songs like “Jews for Jesus Blues”, “Something Beautiful”, and other tracks in that vein, like “God Answers Back” and “Weird”.
“The End of Love” does, however, offer a glimpse of what a melding of these two styles would sound like. The raging rocking breaks down in the middle as Barzelay throws this salvo at his antagonist: “Well guess what? / Your pain’s been done / to perfection by everyone. / And the first thing every killer reads / is Catcher in the Rye.” Even if not in the class of Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street”, that certainly is one hell of a put-down. Unfortunately, however, the track again picks up its bombast, as Barzelay moans, “Maybe you should just release the doves / because no one will survive the end of love.” He went from sounding like a sharp-tongued descendent of the master of acerbic wit to a limp-sounding Adam Duritz clone: the words sound good (kind of), in a poetic sort of way, but they don’t hit you on any gut level.
Much more effective is the album’s country-rock closer, “Weird”. Over the most basic of looping, 2/2 beats, with boisterous and silly backing vocals, Barzelay offers this nugget of venom: “So you’re mother found God, / and your dad likes to drink. / You’re not as weird as you’d like me to think.” The song is just a lot of fun, as you listen to verse after verse of the singer picking apart this pretentious person in increasingly inventive and humorous ways. I only wish Clem Snide could’ve put together an entire album of material as smart, fun, and un-self-conscious as this track. If I wanted emotional bombast, I’d listen to the Counting Crows. Clem Snide should go with their strengths, which are killer country beats, atmospheric and compelling guitar swirls, and, most importantly, deftly turned phrases of wit, humor, and inspiration.