Clem Snide (Contemporary Musicians)
Country rock group
After a decade together, the band Clem Snide has survived major-label trauma and emerged with three albums of quirky, acoustic music often classified as "alternative country." Although more familiar to New York City critics than to a national audience, the band has insisted on realizing its vision of making idiosyncratic and intensely personal music for a wide range of fans. "We're going to keep making records one way or another," vocalist and guitarist Eef Barzelay told Rolling Stone, adding: "But just from an artistic perspective, we want to write songs that somebody can listen to in their bedroomnd hopefully make them feel good."
Considering its eventual musical direction, Clem Snide began, improbably enough, in Boston around 1991 as a trio with a contemporary, punk-pop sound. "We were angry young guys back when that was fashionable in the early nineties," Barzelay told the Swizzle Stick website. "We sounded like the Lemonheads, kind of. And then things got even freakier when we brought in this sax player." The initial formation of Clem Snide, however, did not last very long; the saxophone player soon left, and the band itself fell apart. In 1995, Barzelay and cello player and programmer Jason Glasser regrouped, minus drummer Eric Paull, and moved to New York City to revive the band with a more acousticoriented sound. About the only thing to survive from the band's first incarnation was its name, taken from an unpleasant character in a William Burroughs novel. Later, Barzelay admitted that he wished the group had put more thought into its name; chosen as a joke when the band needed a name for its debut gig, he later realized that many other bands picked Burroughsinspired titles as a counter-cultural pose.
Along with bassist Jeff Marshall, Barzelay and Glasser divided their time between day jobs and getting the new Clem Snide off the ground. Barzelay worked as a tour guide in New York City while occasionally living with his parents in suburban New Jersey after breaking up with a girlfriend. Glasser worked as a caterer and multimedia artist, while Marshall attended graduate school. Playing in small New York City clubs as a stripped-down combo, Clem Snide stood out for its back-to-basics approach. "We would take our instruments on the subway," Glasser told Rolling Stone. "No amps, no van, no nothing. We'd play in between these bands that were super amplified, and when we played, the cash-register sound would drown us out."
The revived Clem Snide put out its first single in 1996 and shortly thereafter recorded its first album, You Were a Diamond. Although it did not make a big imjpact on the record-buying public, the debut solidified Clem Snide's reputation on the New York scene for making hard-to-classify, original music with folk, country, and rock influences. In 1999, Paull, who was working as a carpenter, returned to the Clem Snide lineup, and it appeared that the band was on the verge of breakthrough success. While You Were a Diamond had not advanced Clem Snide's cause, it did bring the band to the attention of Sire Records chief Seymour Stein, legendary for his signing of Madonna to a record contract.
As Barzelay told Swizzle Stick, the band had high hopes going into its deal with Sire: "It was like an indie label that had some money. It was the almost the best of both worlds.... They weren't doing half a million dollar deals that had been going on before. So we signed with them and things were looking good." Contract in hand, Clem Snide entered the studio to make its follow-up to You Were a Diamond, called Your Favorite Music. Although Sire budgeted the project at $100,000, the band quickly realized that almost all of the money was earmarked for record company, recording, and legal expenses; to make matters worse, Your Favorite Music was completed just as Sire underwent a merger with London Records. In contrast to the band's promising start with Sire, it now found that promoting its recordet alone releasing itas no longer a priority with the label. With Stein's support, the album eventually came out; but as Barzelay told Swizzle Stick, "By that point, our spirits had been crushed, so we were like, 'Put it out,' we didn't even care. In retrospect, it was a terrible year for me. I was like, 'This music thing is a bad idea, maybe I should go back to school.'"
During this dark time, there were a few bright spots. A profile of Clem Snide that called Your Favorite Music "the kind of record whose subtle charms will earn it a lasting place in well-curated music collections" appeared in Rolling Stone at the end of 2000. Other reviews of Your Favorite Music were positive as well. In a four- (of five) star review, Q magazine described the album as "amusing, idiosyncratic lyrical tales... full of a rare quality that makes it quite wonderful." The Times (London) agreed that Your Favorite Music was "thoroughly engaging." The band was also able to get out of its deal with Sire, taking the rights to rerelease Your Favorite Music on another label. Hooking up with New York City-based spinArt, the band looked forward to relaunching Your Favorite Music in March of 2001, and in the meantime entered the studio to record a third album.
Released in June of 2001, The Ghost of Fashion earned the best reviews of Clem Snide's career. Like its predecessors, the album featured eclectic soundshis time, with more emphasis on pop and rock arrangementsnd Barzelay's unusual lyrics, which range from the plaintive to the festive on songs such as "Joan Jett of Arc" and "Ancient Chinese Secret Blues." Once again, the critical reception for Clem Snide was positive and, at times, enthusiastic. 'The band finds inspiration in the high and low to create a different kind of love song," a Time Out New York critic offered, adding, "Clem Snide delivers its punch lines with such sincerity that they take on a certain poignancy." Regarding Barzelay's emotional delivery, a CMJ reviewer wrote that "He's got a classic country way of making truisms sound like zen philosophy, and Ghost gathers a batch of his stage-perfected songs that balance a knowing pop culture gleam his audience desires, with the wisdom they now need."
As on its past efforts, Clem Snide's critical appraisal far outpaced its commercial achievement on The Ghost of Fashion. With its independent label deal, however, the band could focus on its music instead of striving for blockbuster sales. As Barzelay noted to Swizzle Stick, "You only have to sell 10,000 records to start making money. The numbers make more sense now. It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders." With raves from reviewers, however, commercial success may be just a matter of time for the New York City band. With audiences embracing other hard-to-categorize acts with eclectic musical influences, quirky lyrics, and unusual frontmenncluding the Eels, Weezer, and Barenaked Ladies, just to name a fewainstream success could indeed happen for Clem Snide.
With three albums under its belt, Clem Snide has lost and regained members, started from scratch on a competitive New York City music scene after a false start in Boston, and even escapedlbum intactrom a major-label contract that seemed destined to consign them to oblivion. Although the band has yet to headline a national concert tour or have its fans line up around the block for an album-signing appearance, it has nevertheless built enough critical respect to ensure a bright, if commercially modest, future. As Barzelay conveyed the band's hopes to Rolling Stone, "I'm idealistic. I believe you can make music that's good and smart and heartfelt, and people will like it."
You Were a Diamond, Tractor Beam, 1998.
Your Favorite Music, Sire, 2000.
The Ghost of Fashion, spinART, 2001.
Boston Phoenix, September 12, 2001.
CMJ, June 18, 2001.
Q, April 2001.
Rolling Stone, December 7, 2000; July 5, 2001.
Time Out New York, June 28-July 5, 2001.
Times (London), February 24, 2001.
Village Voice, August 7, 2001.
Clem Snide Official Website, http://www.clemsnide.com/faq.html (September 12, 2001).
Swizzle Stick, http://member.tripod.com/swizzlestickzine/features/clemsnid... (September 12, 2001).