The Curse Of Great Beauty 

Two of America's finest bands offer literate, perverse takes on

The beautiful were never meant to suffer," Eef Barzelay announces near the outset of his band Clem Snide's latest album, The Ghost of Fashion, before lowering his voice to a whispery ache to complete the line -- "And I'm so beautiful."

Given the ambiguous tone of most of the band's music, it makes sense that we can't be quite sure where Barzelay is coming from at this moment -- is he honestly lamenting his band's awkward fate as celebrated fringe- dwellers or is he merely goofing on it? Either way it's a fitting statement for both Clem Snide and the similar band the Ass Ponys, whose own recent album, Lohio, is also quite beautiful: These groups are saddled with the honor and curse of being two of the smartest bands in all of America(na).

Both the New York-based Clem Snide and the Ohio-based Ass Ponys are indie bands that have recovered from major-label flirtations. The Ass Ponys put out a couple of records for A&M in the mid-'90s, back when the majors were drunk on Nirvana and throwing money at indies everywhere. The band disappeared after 1996's The Known Universe, assumed dead until they popped up last year on the Chicago indie label Checkered Past with the strong comeback Some Stupid With a Flare Gun. Clem Snide put out the perhaps too-dour Your Favorite Music on Sire just a couple of years ago but have now found a more comfortable fit with New York's indie SpinArt.

Clem Snide and the Ass Ponys both play straightforward rock with a rootsy bent, and both bands employ a wide instrumental palette. The Ass Ponys are more rock, with lead guitarist Bill Alletzhauser evoking the ragged glory of Neil Young at times, but they are just as liable to spike their rust- belt rock with dollops of bluegrass strings, soul organ, or alt-associated Moog. By contrast, Clem Snide is more atmospheric. The Ghost of Fashion's soundscapes are given an acoustic lilt by the dominant bed of strings and horns. On the bridge of "Long Lost Twin" these elements swell to a crescendo that could have been lifted from a Drifters record -- indie rock does "There Goes My Baby."

But the element that most unites Clem Snide and the Ass Ponys is their respective frontmen -- Barzelay and the Ponys' Chuck Cleaver are as smart, idiosyncratic, and observant a pair of rock songwriters as there is right now, and both, to their credit, find their voice through the camaraderie and sound-sense of a functioning band. The American underground has long harbored these kinds of frontmen. The Replacements' Paul Westerberg is the model. The Archers of Loaf's Eric Bachman was a worthy inheritor. The Old 97s' Rhett Miller is another contemporary example (and he's currently having his own major-label flirtation).

But if dissonance and raw attitude were what kept Westerberg and Bachman from mainstream stardom, then Cleaver and Barzelay have different commercial handicaps. Though both front bands musical enough to implant hooks and melodies into your hum matrix, these guys are just too smart (or, some might say, too smart-alecky) to play it straight. Cleaver and Barzelay have a way of undermining their own anthems. This strategy -- if you can call it that -- is so prevalent on Lohio that it's almost the album's theme. Time and time again the Ass Ponys produce undeniable, almost classic-rock structures, only to have Cleaver pull them in unusual, if not perverse, directions.

Lohio's jaw-dropping opener, "Last Night It Snowed," starts with delicate piano that matches Cleaver's awestruck description of the preceding night's snowfall. But this lovely setting gets an almost triumphantly sarcastic twist as Cleaver taunts a visitor with the snowfall's fleetingness, giving way to morning rain and a landscape "turned back to gray" as Cleaver's cold "I told you so" introduces a barrage of power chords.

"Dried Up" could almost be Cleaver's own "Night Moves." Alletzhauser laces the song with a limber, stomping guitar riff that could be Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" turned inside-out, and Cleaver spins a nostalgic coming-of-(sexual)-age tale. Cleaver's "I recall the smell of summer on your skin/We were 17 and everything was pounding and it wouldn't stop" could have sprung from Bob Seger's pen, but it's doubtful Mr. "Old Time Rock and Roll" would have tolerated Cleaver's lovingly sarcastic follow-up -- "It's hard to put into words what I was thinking then/I don't know/We were alive or something."

And so it goes. "Butterfly" is a rousing classic-rock anthem that finds sonic middle ground between the Who and the Stones. The song is a deliciously in-your-face taunt: "Hey man, you wanna be the pilot of a kamikaze aeroplane/Instead, I bet you're gonna add it to a list of things you never tried/You're a fifth wheel, a fourth-class, third-string, second- rate kind of guy." "Nothing Starts Today" is a gentle acoustic gem on a par with the Beatles' "Blackbird," but it's really an ode to procrastination and atrophy.

Clem Snide is less prone to that kind of rock grandeur, but when they do channel it, as on the beautiful, soaring "Moment In the Sun," Barzelay undercuts the aural command even more perversely. In this case, Barzelay plays it straight enough vocally to keep you guessing, but the song itself is deeply, deeply sarcastic. In a first-person confessional reportedly inspired by folkie-cum-poet babe Jewel, Barzelay sings, "I have a lot of things to say/And you'd be wise to listen good/I think that hunger, war, and death/Are bringing everybody down/La, la, la, la, la, la."

But Barzelay and Cleaver aren't just wiseacres. In fact, these two songwriters both have a penchant for combining pop-culture references with deeply felt emotional truths. On "Kung Fu Reference," Cleaver documents a mundane night of slackerdom with something like the oddball wonder that R.E.M. brought to "Man On the Moon," matter-of-factly setting the scene with this -- "Big evening up ahead/A wide array of choices/Blade Runner, RoboCop, or The Bride of Frankenstein." Barzelay offers a devastatingly lovely reverie to a high school girlfriend with the arch title "Joan Jett of Arc" -- reliving his '80s youth with these fondly referential lines: "My black heart was heavy/Her mom's Couger was fast/As 'Little Pink Houses' was whistled/And it was all-you-can-eat at the Sizzler that night/My steak-burning Joan Jett of Arc."

But despite their many similarities, Cleaver and Barzelay are still quite different songwriters. Barzelay is a wit, master of the clever one-liner. On "Long Lost Twin" he hitches almost the entire song to the unforgettable line "Tonight I feel like Elvis longing for his long- lost twin." Cleaver, on the other hand, is more of a pop-song short story writer, observing and documenting the bizarre yet literal with a flair that compares favorably to songwriters as diverse as Tom T. Hall and Freedy Johnston.

And the two men's takes on romance are decidedly different. Cleaver takes pleasure in exploring romantic wreckage in concise, vivid lyrical strokes. He lassos the scorching tempo of "Only" just long enough to plead, "Please don't kick my busted heart too far," while the delicate fiddle melody of "Calendar Days" provides a backdrop to a similar romantic query -- "Do I still exist in the bottomless pit of your heart?" Barzelay's romantic entanglements are less devastated, more playful, and more, well, snide -- sex talk for bookworms. On "Don't Be Afraid of Your Anger" he snaps at a romantic sparring partner, "Well, your tongue can get sharp/But it's soft in my mouth." On the solo centerpiece "The Curse of Great Beauty," the difference between spiteful insult and sly come-on dissolves as Barzelay sweet-talks his object of desire: "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/So put down that book, it's too serious/I'll undress you as I make a joke."

With The Ghost of Fashion and Lohio, Clem Snide and the Ass Ponys have released what are likely career peaks and certainly two of the year's best albums. Clem Snide -- despite their recent drop from the majors to an indie and probably due in part to their proximity to cultural tastemakers in New York -- are something of a buzz band. The Ass Ponys, despite a positive review in the latest Rolling Stone, are often ignored. Their Ohio base probably doesn't help, but I blame their awful moniker: For years I've had to deflect guffaws and rolling eyes whenever I'd proffer that a group called the Ass Ponys might be one of America's finest rock bands. But neither of these bands is getting rich and famous, and that's too bad, because, with these two splendid records, Clem Snide and the Ass Ponys have crafted brilliant "heartland rock" for people who smirk at the term, and, if Cleaver and Barzelay get what they deserve, maybe even for people who don't.

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.

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