Besides being a character in a William S. Burroughs novel, Clem Snide is a band, a funny and touching alt-countrified/indie-rock band whose frontman and singer/songwriter, Eef Barzelay, is often accused of being too clever for his own good. For many music fans — especially those passionately invested in their own sense of uniqueness — cleverness is a sign of insincerity, which is a sign of inauthenticity, which is kinda like irony, which is, like, so over, dude. It’s not the madding Clear Channel crowd that worries about who’s pretentious and who’s for real; it’s the self-conscious, self-doubting self-identified hipsters, who presume that all their preferences are an extension of their multifaceted, irreducible selves. Barzelay, who recently moved from Trendyville (a.k.a. Brooklyn, N.Y.) to Tackytown (a.k.a. Nashville, Tenn.) has got to be pretty sick of those types himself, and who could blame him? Few flaws are so irritating, so easily satirized, as the ones you recognize in yourself. “Emma Bovary,” Flaubert admitted, “c’est moi.”
End of Love, Clem Snide’s fifth full-length, begins and ends with a song about poseurs. Underneath the surface mockery, however, is a deep and abiding sympathy, a generosity of spirit that refuses to succumb to despair. The title track, a jangly guitar-pop anthem, pokes fun at people who revel in their own unhappiness: “Guess what? Your pain’s been done to perfection by everyone/And the first thing every killer reads is Catcher in the Rye.” By the end of the song, though, the scathing indictments have given way to something more meaningful, and a chorus of cheerful horns underscores the parting shot of poignant optimism: “You might as well release the doves/Because no one will survive the end of love.” The closing song, “Weird,” is another salvo against isolating narcissism: “So what if your mother found God and your dad likes to drink/You’re not as weird as you’d like me to think.”
Barzelay wrote the 11 songs on the album after the death of his mother-in-law, as his own mother was dying of cancer; unsurprisingly, most are meditations on mortality that document the search for meaning in an absurd, painful universe. “For me, this record is about failing triumphantly,” he says in the press kit accompanying the release — an oxymoron that perfectly captures End of Love’s biting buoyancy.
From 2000 to 2003, Petra Haden sporadically recorded an a capella version of the Who’s 1967 high-concept classic The Who Sell Out. Haden, one of jazz bassist Charlie Haden’s triplet daughters, was encouraged in this quixotic endeavor by another legendary bassist, her friend Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), who was curious to see what Haden, a self-confessed Who neophyte who didn’t even own the original album, would do with one of his all-time fave raves. He loaned her a Tascam 488 eight-track recorder, with side one of the original on track eight of one cassette and side two on another, and encouraged her to sing along until she filled up the remaining tracks.
Gamely, Haden did her best to reproduce all of the instruments, right down to the mock commercials between songs. Her impressive but never showy range and her childlike enthusiasm for this deeply goofy project keep her rendition of Sell Out from being the novelty one might expect. Although it’s impossible not to smile when listening to her vocal approximations of Pete Townshend’s virtuosic riffage, John Entwistle’s thunderous counterpoint, and Keith Moon’s divine hammer, the smile never turns into a smirk. Who purists might shudder, but there’s something redemptive in the radical reinterpretation of a canonical work. Without the risk of travesty, tribute is impossible.