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Clem Snide 

Soft Spot

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After a couple of listens to its newest record, Soft Spot, Clem Snide (named after a character in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch) sounds as if it must be from England -- its immaculate, literate, and evocatively orchestrated country-shaded pop/rock resembles the decidedly British sophisto-pop of the Tindersticks, the Divine Comedy, and the Lilac Time. But nope, it's one of "ours," based in the NYC/Brooklyn area, a sphere typically not associated with pensive sophistry (at least since the glory days of Cole Porter and Lou Reed). And yet, despite its less-than-bucolic environs, Clem Snide at times even approaches the earthy-elegant majesty of hipsters' Patron Saint of Downhearted Melodramatic Pop, Oklahoma-born Lee Hazlewood.

Vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Eef Barzelay's tunes are like little soundtracks for very personal indie films, yet he sidesteps the stilted, artsy-fartsy aspects that frequently plague such movies (and a lot of indie rock, for that matter). His songs are rich with detailed, reflective melancholy, but that feeling is counterbalanced with compassion and kindhearted humor. In "Happy Birthday," a spaghetti western-sounding, twang-laden tribute to a friend, he sings in a hospitable, parched near-drawl not unlike Son Volt's Jay Farrar's (though not as world-weary), "I hope that your friends are true and funny/ And your girlfriends are sweet, and wear tight pants/ And after your heart is gently broken/ I hope that you get a second chance." Barzelay's movies for the ear are scored with organs, violin, cello, banjo, chimes, and vibraphone, along with the usual guitar-bass-drums; arrangements are winsome and intricate but never fussy or precious. What's more, there's a lot of variety to be had: an acoustic meditation ("Find Love") follows a booming, Phil Spector- shaded epic ("Action"). The lush, poetic "All Green" might well be what iconic songster Gram Parsons had in mind when he said he was aiming for a sound called "cosmic American music." Clem Snide's latest is proof positive (for those who need it) that immaculately crafted, literate rock/pop is not only the province of Steely Dan and our well-read Brit cousins. This one gets that elusive three-thumbs-way-up rating. -- Mark Keresman

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