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There’s Nothing Wrong With Love

Clem Snide
Soft Spot (SpinArt)
A Beautiful EP (SpinArt)

Boston-via-Brooklyn faux-country purveyors Clem Snide’s last LP, The Ghost of Fashion, opened with singer-songwriter Eef Barzelay’s sardonic line “Love is only for the lovely.” That essentially summed up Ghost’s underlying theme: looking for love in all the wrong places, much like Elvis longing for his long-lost twin. Ultimately, however, the album was heavy on humor and awkward imagery, with some clever (and not-so-clever) plays on words dominating the landscape, but ultimately short on real content.

On the 2003 release Soft Spot, Barzelay seems to have had a change of heart, and now he’s declaring that love is for just about everybody. A tender vibe pervades, in keeping with the title, and references to love and happiness abound. Opening with the lilting “Forever, Now and Then,” Soft Spot doesn’t so much take flight as it finds a soft musical current and floats along on it. It’s sweeter, prettier, and more melodic than past Snide releases, and the gratuitous twang of old is sidelined in favor of more serious stabs at pop on “Action” and the horn-adorned “Happy Birthday.” Throughout, Barzelay sounds almost ridiculously content. It’s as if the band slipped him a Paxil-and-weed cocktail just before he went into the vocal booth. “Find love, then give it all away,” he croons on “Find Love.” Elsewhere, he’s dispensing overtures like “I will swallow swords for you” and “You’re everything I want to do.” Perhaps he’s found that long-lost twin after all.

The five-track A Beautiful EP is titled for its remarkably unironic reworking of Christina Aguilera’s and Linda Perry’s “Beautiful.” They give it a Cars-y spin, showing an edge that has only been hinted at thus far. The wonderfully sunny pop song “All Green” is reprised, with Barzelay praising the virtues of waiting out a long winter. “Summer will come with Al Green and sweetened ice tea,” he sings, as chimey glockenspiel and toy bells give it an extra lift. Multi-instrumentalist Pete Fitzpatrick complements Barzelay’s Lou Reed with a fine John Cale impersonation on a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and Fashion’s obtuse humor almost bubbles to the surface again on “Mike Kalinsky,” although the playfulness is mostly relegated to the coda, which finds the band thrashing about like a drunken garage band.

What’s perhaps most engaging about these two releases is the pop overthrow of Fitzpatrick and Jason Glasser, who together manhandle a larger instrument collection than your average eighth-grade concert-band room. Barzelay has found the perfect foils to his tongue-in-cheekiness, and here’s hoping this lineup maintains for some time.

—John Brodeur

Elf Power
Walking With The Beggar Boys (Orange Twin)

Elf Power have a decade under their belts, and the sixth album by this Athens, Ga.-based band marks a bit of a change and expansion in their sound. With new members on board (Eric Harris, formerly with Olivia Tremor Control, and Craig McQuiston from the Glands), the quintet move easily from straight-ahead (if slightly fractured) rockers to fine slices of cerebral sonics. The title track, with guest Vic Chesnutt on hand for duet vocals, sounds as rooted in southern Americana as R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” (a band with whom they’ve toured, besides sharing a hometown). Elsewhere, “Evil Eye” chugs along like a rural T. Rex, and “The Cracks” revels in mechanized rhythm tracks and eerily nostalgic synth runs. Throughout, they never lose track of their vital core interplay, celebrating the fine little engine that they are at all times. That the range of Elf Power is so broad comes as little surprise, given their past approaches, as well as their previous affiliations (muti-instrumentalist Laura Carter was a member of Neutral Milk Hotel).

—David Greenberger

Starsailor
Silence Is Easy (Capitol)

Two stories, one tragic and one happy. First, the producer: Things being as they are in Phil Spector’s world right now, the songs he helmed here are probably going to be a coda to one of the most twisted and brilliant producing careers of all time. (Originally, a full-length collaboration with Starsailor was in the works, but the young band, apparently discontented with the results, gleaned only three tracks from the sessions.) Lord only knows why Spector anointed this fairly unremarkable British band for his brief return; he had been all-but-retired since 1980. But now, to cap off a life marked by strangeness, gorgeously compressed walls of sound and notorious gunplay, Phil’s up on murder charges and his tale branches off into Hollywood babylon.

As for the album: pretty darn good for an OK band who followed Coldplay out of the gates to provide mid-’90s Brit-pop—the laddish sneering variety (Oasis and ilk) and the Martin Amis-reading art-pop strain (Blur)—with its antithesis: keening, university-bound sensitivity rooted in the high-wire vocal drama and poetics of the Buckleys, dad Tim and son Jeff. (Starsailor even take their name from a Tim Buckley tune.) One of the Spector collaborations, the pulsingly rich title track, is the best of the lot, but you wouldn’t pick it out of a lineup as a Spector job—like any really great producer, he serves the interests of the tunes rather than impressing his watermark on the proceedings. Other tracks are similarly rich and pretty: “Telling Them,” with its string flourishes, for example, and the trans-European symphonic noir of “Bring My Love.” The studio sweetening is the greatest achievement here, and how this little guitar band are going to render these songs live is their problem. But as albums stand, once again, pretty darn good.

—Erik Hage

The High Socks
Introducing the High Socks (Self-Released)

Maybe no one has told these guys, but here is the album that Soul Asylum should have made after 1988’s Hang Time, before the dyspeptic fart of the music industry sucked them into its sloppy old bubble. Here is some battered, no-frills noise. This stripped, egalitarian rock requires a frothing, melody-conscious singer despite its simplicity, lest the tunes get mired in self-indulgent mumbling and elementary presence. Thankfully, Mike Conti does an excellent job nailing appropriate harmonies to this unrefined wall of catchy choruses with scratchy cries from a Lark Street balcony, replete with prepubescent whine a la Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan. Without such know-how, horrific results could ensue, including (but not limited to, unfortunately) singers who don’t realize that they can actually sing outside the base notes of a progression. I’ve seen it happen. In fact, it was just last night.

But none of that bunk here—the hurricane chasers “Hold Your Breath” and “Nowhere Slow” are packed with decent melodies and mucho fortissimo fortitude. But then you also get the pleasant, wailing nemesis of “Bonnie and Clyde” or “Star #6.” Song topics, well, what did you expect? Lost love, lost opportunity, lost souls. Last Vestige’s Jim Kaufman pummels his kit, and a hail of guitars and bass swirl and drive this tempestuous thing into bayside without so much as a sputter. Not much on this offering that feels cumbersome or tired, although perhaps the somewhat introverted “Picture Song” seems a little less than whole. For full garage effect, play very loud, and chalk one up for Cotton Hill Studios. Great first strike for these guys, looking forward to the next one.

—Bill Ketzer


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