Always a vehicle for quirky singer/songwriter Eef Barzelay and a regularly changing group of talented instrumentalists, Clem Snide the band became less vital when Barzelay began releasing solo records in 2006. So after nearly 15 years, Clem Snide was ostensibly broken up, citing too many problems in the creation of this album. And yet 2009, at last, brings us Hungry Bird and Clem Snide on tour.
What’s changed, then, is perhaps Barzelay’s recording mindset. With an outlet for his solo aspirations, some of the quirkier and more bare tracks in Clem Snide’s arsenal such as “Joan Jett of Arc” are gone. And instead, Hungry Bird feels like a more reigned-in and thought-out affair. Some will lament the withdrawal from a loose and sly kind of songwriting that has long defined this band appropriately named after a William S. Burroughs character. But new fans will, I expect, find much to like on Hungry Bird, while old fans can still appreciate the unique approach Barzelay and his lilting, drawling voice lends to a well fleshed-out release.
There’s no perfect song, like The Ghost of Fashion’s “Moment in the Sun,” but the 8-minute “Pray” comes satisfactorily close, starting with the quiet plea, “Pray for the nonbelievers” and soft piano before building in pace, adding electric guitars and a group chorus. It drifts away on light guitars and distant feedback, as Barzelay croons “Pray a hungry bird consumes his heart” and fades out in a flowing, discordant, and emotionally cathartic way.
Mostly, Hungry Bird is full of mid-tempo pop songs with Clem Snide’s trademark dash of country-esque folk. If not for Barzelay’s unique vocal stylings, some of these songs might trend toward the mundane, but Barzelay’s warble and croon and his unique twist of phrase keeps tracks like the even-keeled “Me No” and “Burn the Light” pleasurable. One of the band’s more creative numbers, “The Endless Endings” features a nice dichotomy of quiet musings and emphatic, crunchy guitars. “Hum” is a glorious slice of classic Clem Snide in meandering form, riding light instrumentation and telling its own little story. “Born a Man” will also resonate with Clem Snide fans, its pace and instrumentation light, its lyrics rather melancholy.
Hungry Bird is not the best release in the Clem Snide catalog, but it certainly is a strong album. It just took me a few listens to get used to this new, slightly more restrained Clem Snide, a band that tempers its quirky nature to a degree and focuses on solid pop songs. What strikes me is that past Clem Snide albums had their stronger moments, but also their weaker ones, while Hungry Bird, for all its time in development, is more solid throughout, delivering its 10 pop songs with a consistency that shows the band continuing to develop its sound. And that’s why the re-assembling of Clem Snide is a very good thing.