But like my monkey uncles, who came down from trees and learned to play Galaga, I can adapt. My mission now is to inform you that Clem Snide is not one of those crappy artists thrust into undeserved fame by a popular TV series (Vonda Shepard, I'm looking at you), but a real, honest-to-goodness band deserving of your attention. So there.
(Incidentally, there is nobody in the group named Clem. Like Steely Dan, the band borrowed what sounds like a person's name from the work of William S. Burroughs.)
By their debut recording, this formerly punk-ish combo had already morphed into something folksier, a mostly acoustic trio with one member contributing both violin and cello. Although they had obviously listened to a good bit of country music (they do a great cover of Hank Williams' "Lost on the River"), Jason Glasser's string work owes little to Bob Wills — it is more often an ethereal harmonic element or droning texture á la John Cale's viola in the Velvet Underground. That comparison is inevitable on "Better" — the first, loudest, and one of the best songs on the disc.
After that initial Velvety diversion, though, the record gets where it really wants to be: to the intimate lyrics and sweetly frumpy vocals of Eef Barzelay. Namechecking Nick Drake will get your foot in the door with a certain crowd, but the rest of Barzelay's songs bear out the influence: gentle and melancholy, though less lost and frail than Drake — who, come to think of it, was also the dubious beneficiary of TV airplay, thanks to those moonlit VW ads.
The little noise break on "Better" also calls to mind the work of a more recently departed songwriter, Jeff Buckley. Buckley only finished one album before dying somewhat mysteriously in 1997, but it was such a delicious one that, five years later, fans are still picking at its scraps.
The Grace EPs (Columbia) is a mini-box set that contains facsimiles of five short discs released in the aftermath of that album's surprising success. Some were released only overseas, some were issued for promotional use only and never for sale. In other words, these were highly collectible records, and die-hard fans will be happy to have them so cheaply. There is a lot of overlap: Out of 19 tracks, three are versions of "Grace," three are "Mojo Pin," and three are "Dream Brother." On the other hand, the singer was a famously passionate live performer, and these varying live tracks bear that out, especially the two versions of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." These songs have been well documented already, but this little box will make a lot of very obsessive people very happy.
You don't have to be very obsessive to be intrigued by Songs to No One: 1991-1992 (Knitmedia), which collects Buckley's pre-Grace work with former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas. But only the very curious will want to listen to the whole thing more than once. None of the recordings were meant for release, and certain tracks, like the loooong, hypnotic "Hymne á L'amour," feel like little more than dreamy sketches. Others, such as "Grace," are simply demos for songs that would come into their own soon enough. But there is some oddball stuff, including two songs on which some of Buckley's peers (guitarist Bill Frisell, for one) have fleshed out particularly thin original recordings with overdubs. One of the nicer tracks is a cover of an old country standard, in which the singer promises, when it comes his time, to "leave this old world with a satisfied mind." Here's hoping that held true for Buckley, who left a lot of people missing him.