Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay is one of pop music's finest songwriters -- funny, perceptive, moving, with an unparalleled gift for the memorable one-liner. On his band's last record, The Ghost of Fashion, Barzelay walked a tightrope between sarcasm and sincerity, a high-wire act that kept the listener on edge because it was often hard to tell exactly which direction Barzelay was coming from. Soft Spot, by contrast, is so plainly sincere that it might be equally disorienting: Those already familiar with Barzelay's tricky wordplay will keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Musically, Soft Spot is similarly stripped down. Where The Ghost of Fashion evoked Atlantic soul in its mix of strings and horns, Soft Spot is more straightforward acoustic pop. But what Soft Spot lacks in complexity it makes up for in hushed beauty.
Soft Spot is Barzelay's love album -- seemingly an album-long ode to a wife and baby. At first you might miss the twists and turns of past efforts, but when Barzelay calls out "Was your sweet kiss just a dream?" and Mary Rowell's violin calls back, it's so lovely that you'll likely be won over. Of these sweet little domestic love songs, "Close the Door" is the best. In a common scenario perhaps making its first appearance in a pop song, Barzelay catches his wife "doubting [herself] in the mirror" and his perfect response says volumes more than any of his more flamboyant verbal flights could: "But you look good to me."
But the baby gets his due as well: "Happy Birthday," sort of an alternative take on Lee Ann Womack's megahit "I Hope You Dance," is an advice-song to a newborn with lyrics like "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." --Chris Herrington
Clem Snide perform at the Hi-Tone CafÇ Wednesday, October 8th, with Califone.
The Handsome Family
Unlikely heirs apparent to the Louvin Brothers' gothic song-stories, Chicago-based husband-and-wife duo the Handsome Family have received critical acclaim from the likes of Greil Marcus, National Public Radio, and LA Weekly over the past several years. While their sixth full-length, Singing Bones, hardly breaks any new ground, the album's October release is perfectly timed -- tunes like the ghostly "24-Hour Store" (which features baritone Brett Sparks on vocals and musical saw) make for an appropriately spooky-sounding Halloween soundtrack.
A lake full of drowned bodies, a hurried excavation of a bottomless pit, an ambush in the middle of a peach orchard, a deserted office building: Sparks seems consumed with such unlikely visions as he croons, "Ahead of me ran Jackson/Who took a bullet to the chest/And beneath the swaying peaches/Jackson slowly bled to death," an oddly restrained rhyme penned by his wife Rennie, who accompanies him with her beautiful, unassuming contralto.
Lyrically, think Edgar Allan Poe, Cormac McCarthy, Edward Gorey, the gloomiest books of the Old Testament, and Johnny Cash at his bleakest hour. Guitar, autoharp, mandolin, dobro, and violin set the tone with musicianship that's as precise as a coroner's report, but, of course, much livelier. "Gail with the Golden Hair" could be a forgotten Marty Robbins ballad, while "Far from Any Road" rocks with an unexpectedly jaunty conjunto beat. "Sleepy" unwinds like a lullaby gone horribly awry, and "Whitehaven" combines elements of an English folk melody with mellow country overtones. Fittingly, Singing Bones closes with "If the World Should End in Ice" (a reprise of "If the World Should End in Fire," the album's sixth track), which sounds for all the world like a Protestant funeral hymn. -- Andria Lisle
The Handsome Family perform at Young Avenue Deli Friday, October 3rd, with Jim White.
That Trans Am, on their latest album, have decided to sound like a beefed-up Wang Chung is not as opportunistic as it may sound given underground rock's current '80s fixation. Trans Am were toying with this stuff (along with about 40 other styles) way back in 1996. A cursory overview of the band's discography shows an archaeological expertise in co-opting whatever happens to be sitting in the "recent play" pile. Whether it be real metal, hair metal, early German electronics, '70s butt-rock, prog-rock, synth-pop, or disco, they could turn any of it into Trans Am.
TA is essentially a muscular journey through, well, the PA system of a French Riviera Spa circa '84. The first three tracks -- "Cold War," "Molecules," and "Run with Me" -- may be Brill Building-esque in their attention to pop construction, but they could also be on the soundtrack to any number of '80s romantic dramas. Several of TA's standouts might be dubbed "project rock" after the visceral studio confections that play during a movie's token "teamwork" scene, when a science fair is the next day or a community center needs to be built in two days.
And there are plenty of standouts: There is far less electronic diddling around and far more realized songs on TA than on any previous Trans Am release. It sounds like a party, and who doesn't like a good party? Naturally, Trans Am adds an aggressive punch that wasn't present in the treadmill-pop of 20 years ago, and that's the key to aping another cultural era: You must add your own touch so that it still feels like today or, better yet, like the future. --Andrew Earles
Trans Am perform Saturday, October 4th, at the Hi-Tone CafÇ, with the Movies and A.R.E. Weapons.
Interesting story behind this one. Lynn Bridges, who owns a small recording studio in Westpoint, Georgia, gets in touch with Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth drummer and Smells Like Teen Spirit record-label chief, to offer engineering services and studio time to any of his label's bands. The only catch is that the band will have to travel to Georgia to avail themselves of this generous offer. Summer 2002 sees Tim Prudhomme and Jeff Soule, formerly of Fuck and both of whom record for Shelley's label, on a Southern tour. There's an unanticipated break in the tour's schedule, and they have a few days off. So they call Bridges, and he says, "Let's do a record." Staff is the result.
You'd think then that this recording would not be much more than a tossed-off side project, right? Nope, not the case. Consider this unlikely scenario for a moment: Sonic Youth's rockin', tuneful side uncontaminated by new-music ambitions, tres avant soundscapes, Kim Gordon's yowling, experimental guitar tunings, and musique concrete sludge. You might end up with something like Staff --unexpected and nearly perfect, only docked a notch for coming in at a mere five songs. Proof that not trying too hard is sometimes the gateway to making a great record. n --Ross Johnson
Staff perform Friday, October 3rd, at Murphy's, with Dearest Darlin's.