For wanting to be so set apart from the jocks and cheerleaders, the indie-rock world is really just high school all over again. It’s another popularity contest. Everybody knows Conor Oberst, with that cool name, pinup-boy looks, and songs that stab at politics and get his name in the news. But the geeky kids, the ones with the weird monikers, crazy hair and bottle-cap glasses, remain on the sidelines, not being invited to the big dance of the “Vote for Change” tour.
Well, I’ll see Oberst’s “When the President Talks to God” and “Landlocked Blues” and best them any day with “Thanksgiving Waves,” the most gripping song on Clem Snide frontman Eef Barzelay’s first solo album, Bitter Honey. Whereas Oberst can seem heavy handed, almost pounding the listener over the head with political rhetoric, Barzelay can slip in lyrics such as “if this war’s ever over,” “pick at your flesh like an eagle,” and “I’ll go back to Texas” that jump out of an already beautiful song and give listeners reason to pause.
Clem Snide has been quietly progressing over the last few years. The members seem to have left behind their early ambitions at being some kind of hipster swing band, laying down their trumpets and inching more toward the center of alt-rock. Nowhere was this more apparent than on 2003’s A Beautiful EP, which was highlighted by two great covers. One was the eponymous Christina Aguilera power ballad, done with too much sincerity and energy to be a joke; the other was an amazing rendering of “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and nothing spells vying for the indie mainstream like covering a Velvet Underground track.
So with his band already laying claim to being one of the most worthy in America of watching, Barzelay attempts to make the same statement for his singer/songwriter abilities. And he succeeds. “Ballad of Bitter Honey” is a first-person tale of a rap-video girl that starts out silly but becomes touching when her family background is discussed. “N.M.A.” (an acronym for “nothing means anything”) shows that Barzelay is ready to pick up where Elliot Smith left off. “Words that Escape Me” takes up the interesting inquiry of what it would be like to observe the aftermath of your own death. And “I Wasn’t Really Drunk,” with its biting humor, rivals Willie Nelson at his twangy best.
Bitter Honey isn’t without its missteps. “Little Red Dot” is made hokey due to the nature sounds that flitter in the background. And it’s anyone’s guess why Barzelay would close the album with a version of “Joy to the World,” but by that point Bitter Honey has proved so surprisingly effective that it has earned the right to end oddly.
Bitter Honey may not win Barzelay a legion of adoring teenage female fans or attention from the Boss. But with only more-established acts sush as Cat Power and Belle & Sebastian having released top-notch albums in a still young ’06, it does win the title of most unexpectedly superb album so far this year.
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