Said the Guests: Clem Snide
by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


Eef Barzelay is the maestro of Clem Snide, a band of folksy pop, rock, and wry suburban want. I'm an enormous fan of the band, particularly of Your Favourite Music and the more recent End of Love. The musicians are sensitive, skillful, and have scraped knuckles. They're prone to sudden bolts of joy, twangs that carry all the way down telephone wires. Eef's lyrics, meanwhile, like those of The Weakerthans' John K Samson or The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, can be the sorts of things you'd want engraved over your door, or stitched into a welcome mat. Bitter, beautiful, cracked as black pepper.

My friend Ross told me he had been in touch with Eef for an interview, and the words were scarcely out of his mouth when I was asking if he thought I might be able to snare the feller for Said the Gramophone. It gave me such great pleasure when Eef agreed.

So here is Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay on the subject of two tunes he loves. Plus: indie guilt! Dr Dre! irony! race! Bush! Jesus! Teenage girls! All we need now is some saxophones.     --Sean

Ben Folds - "Bitches Ain't Shit". I think there is much that us white people can learn about ourselves if we reflect on this song and why Ben Folds is generally dismissed and sometimes loathed by the indie rock illuminati.

What makes someone’s music more meaningful than someone elses? Or more to the point what is the aesthetic/philosophical value system that informs most music journalists?

In the same way that the neo-cons are reacting to the failed liberal dream of the 1960’s, today’s critics and taste-makers seem to have rejected humanist expressionism as the foundation for rock and roll credibility. I can understand the seductive power of this post-modernist frame of mind. To view one’s self as beyond or above history, like some self-assured librarian who’s mastered the Dewey decimal system of culture. Yet this promise of soulfulness without the sorrow is a hollow promise and, I propose, a more subtle reaction to that age-old white guilt and shame. A shame which stems from a life of comfort and privilege and has drawn several generations of white people to seek redemption in American black music.

In taking the hard gangsta rap of Dr. Dre and lovingly wrapping it in a sweet mournful melody Ben Folds offers a humble tribute to an oppressed people and their co-opted culture. To dismiss this song as cheap irony is to miss the larger implications and proves that most rock critics are no different than Joan Rivers on the red carpet, interested only in what’s on the surface, and afraid or unable to confront the complicated and conflicted heart of the matter.


The Louvin Brothers - "The Christian Life". I can’t think of a more beautiful expression of spirit vs. flesh than this song by the Louvin Brothers from their landmark record Satan is Real. Charlie and Ira’s perfectly matched voices seem to me the very incarnation of this timeless duality. In their bold and clear eyed evocation of this conflict they do succeed in easing the burden of our forever chattering consciousness. This song offers any listener who can embrace it without prejudice, a more than fleeting wisp of the transcendent. Certainly as much, if not more so, than the contrived clatter of Dionysian rock n roll, which only ever really worked for pre-teen girls suffering from what was then known as the vapors.

It’s exciting to consider this song in the present day whereby Caesar i.e. Bush is aligned with Christ. The defiant hopefulness of Charlie in the face of "buddies who shun me since I turned to Jesus" seems quaint in today’s climate of jihads and global crusades. But ultimately it’s the (albeit, slightly bitter) humility that permeates the song that is its true lesson. And one that all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, would be wise to soon learn.

[buy Satan Is Real for $7.99]

[Eef Barzelay is the principal songwriter for the band Clem Snide. This is his MySpace page. This (mp3) is "All Green", a love song by Clem Snide that Sean loves very much.

Clem Snide's new album, Lose Big, is now completed and looking for a label. Eef is meanwhile (as previously reported) on a solo tour in the US and Canada.

10/11 - Hoboken, NJ (Maxwells)
10/12 - North Hampton, MA (Iron Horse)
10/13 - Montreal, QC (Club Lambi)
10/14 - Toronto, ON (Rancho Relaxo)
10/16 - Chicago, IL (Schubas)
10/17 - Madison, WI (High Noon)
10/18 - Columbia, MO (Mojos)
10/19 - St Louis, MO (Duck Room)
10/20 - Nashville, TN (The Basement)
11/01 - Seattle, WA (Crocodile Cafe)
11/02 - Portland, OR (Doug Fir)
11/03 - Eugene, OR (Sam Bonds Garage)
11/05 - San Francisco, CA (Cafe du Nord)
11/07 - Los Angeles, CA (Hotel Cafe)
11/16 - NYC, NY (Irving Plaza - Daily Show concert with Mountain Goats and Superchunk)Check local listings as these dates are with various other kick-ass acts: Casey Dienel here, Jon-Rae and the River there. I can happily report that when I saw Clem Snide play Le Petit Cafe Campus a few years ago, it was a brilliant, noisily moving show.]

(Previous guest-blogs, in and out of the Said the Guests series: Marcello Carlin, artist Johnnie Cluney, Beirut, Jonathan Lethem, Will Butler (Arcade Fire), Al Kratina, Eugene Mirman, artist Dave Bailey, Agent Simple, artist Keith Andrew Shore, Owen Ashworth (Casiotone for the Painfully Alone), artist Kit Malo with Alden Penner (The Unicorns) 1 2, artist Rachell Sumpter, artist Katy Horan 1 2, David Barclay (The Diskettes), artist Drew Heffron, Carl Wilson, artist Tim Moore, Michael Nau (Page France), Devin Davis, Will Sheff (Okkervil River), Edward Droste (Grizzly Bear), Hello Saferide, Damon Krukowski (Damon & Naomi), Brian Michael Roff, Howard Bilerman (producer: Silver Mt. Zion, Arcade Fire, etc.). There are many more to come.)

Posted by Sean at October 11, 2006 3:00 AM

Welcome to STG, Eef. I downloaded 'Bitches Ain't Shit' after seeing Ben in Leicester last year - cool version. Must confess that four of us only went to the BFF show to see your fine support slot, but he was really good, too, and judging from the fanatical fans who sold the show out, Ben's doing pretty well without our buying all of his discs. Looking forward to your second solo album. Come back to Nottingham soon.

Posted by dymbel at October 11, 2006 7:44 AM

To preface: I have absolutely no a priori opinion about Ben Folds or his music. In fact, I have never even heard anything he has done other than that song that was a radio hit about 10 years ago, "Brick."

With respect, I think you're way off base here, so much so that it's hard to tell if you're serious. Firstly, to sum up a love of American black music as the simple result of shame and guilt and privilege is just plain ole baffling. Leaving aside the various questions that need answers (which black music? funk? soul? hip hop? blues? jazz? all of it? and which white people are you talking about? and what about the contributions of whites and other races to the music that is typically considered "black music"? does that complicate things? it should.), what's missing from the equation is the possibility that people might just enjoy something because they like it. Because it adds something to their world that they haven't found elsewhere. Or maybe just because they really like the way Common flows. None of this, of course, denies what you're saying about guilt and shame, but to attribute everything to it is to oversimplify things.

As for the cover in question, I really don't hear a humble tribute to an oppressed people and their co-opted culture. Maybe that's just my ears, but it's not as if he's covering Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye. Rap music (not all of it, but I think this at least holds for Dr. Dre and most of the artists who were prominent in the East Coast-West Coast feud of the early and mid-90's) is often time and place specific. You could get into a long discussion about the musicological origins of that element of the music, but let's just say that in the case of Dr. Dre it was largely for cred. He's from the streets, he's from Compton, he's hard, et cetera and so forth. Ben Folds, not so much. That's not exactly a problem in and of itself, except that knowing that he is not all of these things makes it difficult to take him seriously--and I would contend that this is not the problem of the listener but the problem of the artist. Listening to him sing about ho's and bitches and niggas and the streets makes me cringe. He might not be smiling as he's singing, and therefore thankfully not as obviously ironic (and stupid) as it could have been, but it's still somehow, well, gross. A more humble tribute might have been to engage the always amazing music behind Dre's work rather than the lyrics, which I do not think can be recreated sincerely, or at least not in this case. My reaction, I think, has less to do with obsessing over surfaces than it does with having a deep respect for where an artist--a person--comes from.

That said, it's a very pretty arrangement.


Posted by Andy at October 11, 2006 3:31 PM

as a librarian, i'm bothered by the dewey decimal comment. i'm pretty sure that comment doesn't make sense, but still...

Posted by b at October 11, 2006 5:25 PM

Andy, you've missed the point of G-Funk in the first place. Something like Dr Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit" is a cartoon, a colourful exaggeration. Based on truth, maybe, evoking a particular time and place - read up on the crack cocaine epidemic that hit urban black areas in the late 80s/early 90s - but still a cartoon.

In Folds' hands, "Bitches Ain't Shit" is initially funny because of the juxtaposition between the black slang and the serious white boy ballad style Folds puts the lyrics in (see Jonathan Coulton's "Baby Got Back" for a similar trick). But what makes the version worth listening to more than once is that Folds' version focuses ones' attention on the songwriting aspects of "Bitches Ain't Shit", on the way the rhymes and rhythms flow together. In Folds' hands - someone who often clearly sings from the point of view of characters, Randy Newman-style - the artfulness of the song and the way the setting is built is clearer, at least to honky white ears like mine.

Posted by Tim Byron at October 12, 2006 9:21 AM

Though Dre might sound like a cartoon to honky white ears like yours, I can assure you that there were many, many people who took it much more seriously than you. I'm not thinking of myself here (honestly it had and has little effect on my life); specifically I'm just thinking back to what the hip-hop world was like before the deaths of Pac and Big. Divided, and with fatal consequences.

That's not to say that there isn't a cartoonish element to such inflated self-hyping and misogyny, but I disagree with your assessment on the whole. I have nothing to back up my opinion--no books written or special degrees from hip-hop U.--except for the fact that I've been loving hip-hop through good times and bad for almost twenty years.


Posted by Andy at October 12, 2006 10:10 AM

god i hate that ben folds song. satire/parody? eh

Posted by dave at October 12, 2006 3:09 PM

Hi Andy,

I don't deny that a lot of people took that stuff seriously - obviously shit hit the fan like you mention. Maybe cartoon was the wrong word. I just meant that there's a theatrical aspect to something like The Chronic, that it's artfully constructed storytelling and songwriting. I was just trying to argue that Folds' version emphasises that aspect of the song, especially to white ears assuming that anything with a prominent beat is not art but dance music.


Posted by Tim Byron at October 12, 2006 9:05 PM

I love that Folds' cover. I think there's a huge difference here between Folds' reinterpretation then, say, Dynamite Hack's cover of "Boyz N' the Hood". Where DH played it up all casual and silly, as if to say we're white suburban kids taking another song and singing it in the laziest, most laid-back style to send it up; I've often felt that Folds took this one completely seriously. Instead of focusing on playing up the "hilarity" of a white boy saying "bitches" and "niggas", his focus is on the heartbreak of the situation, especially in the verse about him going to jail and coming out finding his girl's been unfaithful. To me, the whole point of Folds' cover seemed to be that heartbreak is universal, whether it's white/black, rich/poor, indie rock piano player/dope MC.

Posted by caley at October 20, 2006 4:49 PM

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Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

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