CD Reviews: Clem Snide, Meredith Fierke and Kaspar Hauser
Soft rock for soul-searchin' Sundays
Clem Snide's "Hungry Bird" is a frustrating listen. Not in the sense that it's difficult deciding whether or not you like it -- you do -- it's just that it comes complete with an unavoidable mental block.
By that I mean: This album was recorded back in '06, so why was it never released until now? And what exactly was going on between the band members that caused them to "do the collapse" and part ways so unexpectedly?
So, despite all the warm feelings you get listening to its many highlights, you're still stuck thinking about its apparent quagmires. I mean, by frontman Eef Barzelay's own admission, the demise of Clem Snide was merely a self-manufactured set of rumors.
But that's what he's saying now.
And then there's the fact that he calls this album a loosely conceived post-apocalyptic fairytale, though "loosely conceived" only scratches at the surface. It's not that "Hungry Bird" is a sprawling mess or anything, but nothing about it screams cohesiveness.
Smack-dab in the middle of the album, for example, is "Encounter at 3 a.m.," which features Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright going the spoken-word route.
With eccentric indie rock personalities, confusion is nothing new, but this endeavor might just take the cake. It's an interesting experiment, but it just doesn't pan out.
Is this one song the reason the band did (but didn't...) break up? Did they call it a day because it just didn't feel like it belonged in the band's catalogue?
Reservations about the members of the group agreeing that this qualifies as a Clem Snide record aside, the nine other tracks on "Hungry Bird" are solid enough for me to proclaim: "Another winner for the self-described indie rock 'semi-legends.'"
Baggage be damned, the album opens beautifully with "Me No," an elegiac number that's every bit as epic as the darker Pearl Jam moments it seems to draw inspiration from.
From there, "Hungry Bird" sifts from subdued number to subdued number* -- save for "The Endless Endings," which finds the band letting loose for a spell.
And the rest of 'em? Why, thanks for asking; they roll on like amber waves of grain on a cross-country road trip. Clem Snide's beloved brand of a-little-bit-country/a-little-bit-sad-bastard-music indie rock is present and accounted for -- especially on "Born a Man." Even for a group of musicians who were allegedly at the end of their collective ropes, they managed to get their winning formula down pat.
"Mellow gold" has kind of been a punchline since Beck hit the scene, but that's exactly what you'll find here. Save for the bizarro collaboration with Wright, this is music to find yourself to. And, given everything the human race has been through lately, we need more records like this.
*At least compared to Barzelay's triumphant solo offering last year, "Lose Big."
Clem Snide will be in Minnesota March 25 for a show at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis. Click on www.clemsnide.com for details.
With a little help from her friends
Much more plain-Jane vanilla than Clem Snide's "Hungry Bird" is "The Procession," a keeper of an album from Northfield, Minn., singer/songwriter Meredith Fierke.
Not since Leane Perius' "Virginia Wakes" has a chanteuse spliced a folk-rock core with adult contemporary reverberations to produce a record that you physically want to hug.
Yes, it's that easy to fall in love with something like this, recorded sound's equivalent of a "Dear Diary" moment.
Apparently I'm not alone in this sentiment -- Fierke seems to have a lot of friends.
The talented Chris Koza, for one, shows up on a handful of tracks here. Chief among them is "Sad Horse Bones," which, had I not just spent the last six months in a Haley Bonar-induced euphoric state, I could've easily mistaken for a track off that former Duluthian's gorgeous "Big Star" album. The two should share a bill sometime.
Another Koza-aided winner is "Make You Real," which floats somewhere between the areas of your ear canal formerly conquered by Radiohead and the Eels. It's atmospheric, but it has an unmistakable swagger that you just can't get enough of.
Also showing his support for Fierke on that one is White Light Riot's Joe Christenson, who provides the track with its mesmerizing electric guitar lines. (Christenson also uses his skills to spice up another one of my favorites, "Stellar.")
Of course, all the guest shots in the world can't save a set of songs if their author doesn't possess some serious skills. Ladies and gentlemen, Fierke has what it takes.
Look for her to make some serious waves in the coming months. Once the weather returns to "favorable," Fierke's unsuspecting metropolitan flair will provide the perfect soundtrack for any nights spent out on the lakeshore. Absorb what she has to say as you look back toward the city's skyline and fixate your gaze on its bouncing lights reflecting in the cool, cool water. You're living it.
"The Procession" is available now. Visit www.mfierke.com for ordering information.
Kaspar Hauser's album of the year contender
Unlike this week's two other selections, which are merely really ridiculously good, Kaspar Hauser's "The Sons" is utterly brilliant.
Amazed is the feeling that washes over you when you first experience the opening chords of "Not of This World," and, by the time album closer "Time Machine" fades out, you'll be tattooing the lyrics of a certain Wings song all over your face.
But, wait, how did we get here? How did Chicago's Kaspar Hauser go from being a band "for fans of pre-Wilco Jeff Tweedy" to this, where its chief creative force, Thomas Comerford, is the next Jeff Tweedy?
Honestly ... I can't say.* But what I do know is what I like, and this record is surely it.
It's hard not to get overtly gushy when you're talking about a record like this, but, when something's this special, you just want the masses to hear it. It's like the first time I heard Cloud Cult's "Chemicals Collide." I couldn't believe what I had just heard -- it was just so incredible. I immediately starting harassing everyone I'd ever encountered in my life. As in: "Dude, dude, have you heard this song yet?"
It was the type of situation where using "dude" actually seemed OK.... (But, I'm not Hurley on "Lost," so I better stop trumpeting that one around.)
Digressions aside, "The Sons" is a testament to the concept of long-players -- records you listen to from end to end, soaking in each and every note, coda and phrase.
I was immediately drawn to "MacBeth II," the album's immediate standout and, please excuse the cheerleading, heir apparent for song of the year. Riding a wave of sped-up Built to Spill vibrations, Comerford lays down the law: "In the morning / I'll be looking / For a place to lay my head / In the morning / I'll be waiting / For this small town to rest."
As simple as they might seem to some, they blow me away. Not since the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek" have I been so drawn to song lyrics (though, admittedly, they more closely mirror those of "The Weight").
What follows that ready-for-the-primetime track is the album's triumphant inner core: "Frontier" has a foundation that's as majestic as the proverbial "purple mountains"; "Baby Vampire" is sure to elicit fond memories of the best tunes college rock radio championed in the mid- to late-'90s; and, for all the Tony Bennetts out there in the audience, there's even an AM radio-worthy cover of the Kinks classic "See My Friends" sandwiched between those two.
Records don't get much more solid than this.
*At this author's request, Comerford gave it a shot: "Well, I am flattered at being compared to Jeff Tweedy. His work is definitely in the mix of stuff I listen to -- I was a huge Uncle Tupelo fan -- but my primary focus these days is on trying to write and play what I would consider 'good' songs. It's a mercurial criterion, but I feel like I'm getting better as a songwriter and arranger with each set of songs I come up with. The main thing is just making sure I work at it regularly. Having an expanding set of musical friends to work with over the last few years has helped me, too. It's pushed me to become a better writer and musician.
"And I am interested in music's history; my songs can reflect in their structure or arrangements musical ideas or themes that I find compelling. Some ideas some from early American, pre-World War II folk music: blues, gospel, early country, etc. Others come from rock 'n' roll and rock music, from Chuck Berry to the Stones to Pavement. Still, others from glammy drama/art rock -- Bowie and Pink Floyd -- and a Tin Pan Alley influence creeps in every now and then. So, it's quite a stew, and it reflects all the music I've been exposed to and actively sought out since I started paying attention to what was on those records back when...."
Visit www.kasparhausermusic.net for free MP3 downloads of "Mark of Cain," "MacBeth II (In the Morning)" and "Prodigal Son," as well as some select tracks from older releases.