Is there a better songwriter who's less well-known than Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay? The only other contender who comes to mind is the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, who'll also be playing Memphis in the coming weeks.
The Israeli-born Barzelay, who recently relocated his folkish, makeshift Brooklyn band to Nashville, combines the wry, unpredictable sensibility of Randy Newman with the emotional delicacy of the very best confessional singer-songwriters. The result is a tightrope act that negotiates sarcasm and sincerity -- not just song-by-song but line-by-line -- with the resulting ambiguity of such extreme virtuosity that listeners feel like they're right above the big ring with Barzelay. This gift is helped along by the fact that Barzelay might write the best one-liners in pop music. On previous albums, he's built entire songs around such memorable refrains as "Tonight I feel like Elvis longing for his long-lost twin" and the simple "Your favorite music it just gets you down."
Barzelay's ambiguity was somewhat on hold on Clem Snide's last record, 2003's Soft Spot, an underrated love letter to a wife and new baby which underwhelmed fans not only for how relatively easy it was to get a read on but also because it had the misfortune of following the band's finest record, 2001's should-be-classic The Ghost of Fashion.
The new End of Love is a return to the perspective of The Ghost of Fashion, albeit generally darker as the title indicates, with Barzelay singing on the lead/title song, "Just as the curtain closes/I strike authentic poses/Now that we know all the words to history's sad song."
The glistening details don't gel into coherent songs with the same degree of success as on The Ghost of Fashion, but End of Love reminds us that Barzelay's lyrical gift is matched closely by a vocal one: the way his wistful, empathetic lilt duels the mocking, smarty-pants whine to a standstill on every lyric. You can hear this dynamic happen in a set of songs that range from knowing jabs at his own alt subculture ("Guess what?/Your pain's been done/To perfection by everyone/And the first thing every killer reads is Catcher in the Rye") to moody reflections on faith ("Jew for Jesus Blues": "Now that I'm found I miss being lost") to far less easily graspable topics that will have you coming back.
Clem Snide plays the Hi-Tone Café Thursday, March 24th, with David Berkley.