I Love The Unknown
In praise of Clem Snide

Do Clem Snide play Country music? I'm not entirely sure. Are Clem Snide 'alt-country'? I'm sure there are some who would slot them in that category but, as ever, I'm reluctant to make such distinctions. Are Clem Snide the greatest Pop discovery I've (belatedly, admittedly) made in 2001? Yes. Without question.

Clem Snide are simply divine. Marino suggests it's the sort of music he hears in his dreams, and who am I to argue with that? If I could remember my dreams I'm sure it would be the sound of mine also. Their second album, Your Favourite Music, released early in 2001 on Cooking Vinyl in the UK, is a magical concoction of sleepy, slightly surreal adventures in a kind of mythic-historical American hinterland ('The Dairy Queen'), rubbing shoulders with marvellous smoky 3am bar room singalong songs of intrepid discovery whose choruses hit you hard in the heart ('I Love The Unknown', 'Messiah Complex Blues'). And in fact 'I Love The Unknown' is some kind of wonderful update of the Byrds' magestic 'Why?', with lines like

    The doctor asked him what he was afraid of Just what was he running from? And he said it's not a fear of success nor of closeness But of going through life feeling numb

Mirroring those Byrds lines that go

    You say it's a dead old world, dull and unforgiving. Well I don't know where you live, BUT YOU'RE NOT LIVING

And I remember seeing those Byrds words written large in a fanzine once many years ago, and them hitting me with such force I felt weak at the knees. Clem Snide's words do the same to me now.

On Your Favourite Music Clem Snide make sounds that drop into your soul like depth charges. 'Loneliness Finds Her Own Way' is a crackling descent into the world of lost pictures and yellowing book pages; '1989' is a tragicomic spiral of a desolate party, emptied beer bottles and cigarette ends filling ashtrays, the only guest yourself; 'Your Favourite Music' the shuffling, eerily prescient summation of why the hell these songs, these sounds, mean so much in the first place. Why couldn't I have written it like this? -

    Your favorite music Well it just makes you sad Your favorite music Well it just makes you sad But you like it 'Cause you feel special That way

They even have the style to cover Richie Valens' 'Donna', turning it into a 21st Century classic of slow, restrained melancholy. It's the last dance when the hall has emptied. No spotlights, just a sliver of moonlight in the corner. Hold yourself tight. It'll never be alright, but it'll be alright. Just listen...

The Ghost of Fashion, Clem Snide's third album and second of 2001 is even more of a triumph than Your Favourite Music. On The Ghost of Fashion, Clem Snide really take off, adding more texture to the moods laid down previously. There's the jet plane roaring down the runway of 'The Junky Jews'; the brass and kiddy keyboard punctuated scratch-pop of the 'Ice Cube' single; the surreal march of 'Don't Be Afraid of Your Anger'; the down-at-the-rock-and-roll-club swing of 'Long Lost Twin' which has Eef Barzelay telling us he feels like Elvis, longing for Jesse Garon, and who remembers Jesse Garon and The Desperadoes, that troupe of Edinburgh rogues who appropriated the great Monkees guitar logo, had a penchant for covering Blondie songs and who gave us a satchel full of their own great jangling Pop mementoes back in the '80s? Clem Snide don't sound anything like The Desperadoes.

Clem Snide instead sound, on Ghost of Fashion certainly, kind of like a warped collection of odd fellows who met after-hours wandering the parking lot of a Boston suburban honky-tonk. It's a mighty fine sound indeed, nowhere more evident than on the astounding triptych at the centre of The Ghost of Fashion. 'Moment In The Sun' is five and half minutes of pure magic; a tearing apart of a tune where everything fits and everything pulls and pushes at once, making a monumentally soaring noise, all swirling organs, understated horn blasts and guitar chords cascading like waterfalls of electric passion. Over it all Barzelay sings that 'hunger, war, and death are bringin' everybody down' and that 'every hero walks alone thinking of more things to confess'. It's hypnotic, soulful, addictive stuff.

As the last notes of 'Sun' fade into the sea, an organ slowly builds over the sounds of a record's static, and Barzelay's voice floats like a spectre into 'the Curse Of Great Beauty'. I already told you some time ago that 'The Curse Of Great Beauty' was a moment of 'gorgeous, fragile, cracking break of ice thawed in spring sunlight'. It still sounds that way today, only even more so if that's at all humanly possible, and being humanly possible doesn't really come into it at all in fact because on this song Clem Snide sound so exquisitely other-wordly you start to wonder why anyone else bothers making records at all.

If you wanted specific references you could recall Mark Kozelek at his stripped and barren best, or even REM when they sounded mysterious and forlorn. And in fact Barzelay more than occasionally reminds me of Michael Stipe, but that's just fine because I think it's too easy to forget that once upon a time REM made an end of the 20th Century folk sound that was as beguiling as they get. It's easy to forget the sheer delight of hearing, say, 'Stumble' for the first time, or 'Seven Chinese Brothers', or any number of songs. And wasn't 'South Central Rain' the most gloriously melodic shooting star of a song that kept you (in)sane in your bedroom, wind and rain lashed windows curtained for months on end?

'The Curse' in turn fades itself into the delightful, tongue in your cheek 'Joan Jett of Arc'; a twisting, swaying in the evening breeze tale of first loves abandoned and memories lost and decayed. It's a gem for sure.

Which is the entire Clem Snide story really, because these two albums (and I don't doubt their debut You Were A Diamond as well) really have been the brightest, most richly coloured gems discovered in the embers of Pop in 2001. I can't recommend them highly enough.

Alistair Fitchett 2001

visit Clem Snide on the web at www.clemsnide.com