Words & Music: Stephen Clair

Singer-songwriter Stephen Clair wears his self-styled role of “urban roots troubadour” loosely and likably on his new CD, Little Radio. After stints in such hipster hangouts as Austin, New Orleans, and San Francisco, Clair has set roots down in New York, and much of Little Radio has the sprawling, sweet-sardonic flavor of Lou Reed in New-York-telephone-conversation mode. As with Reed — to whom Clair has a more than passing vocal resemblance — the sweetness is often more barbed, and the sarcasm more wistful, than you might expect. Giving a thunderstruck, worshipful love song the title “Jen in Her Underwear” is one way of establishing your earthy urban-romantic bona fides. Elsewhere, in the song “Lemonade” (as in “When life hands you lemons …”), Clair swings back and forth, seeming to want to admire his heroine’s resilient, practical-minded optimism while conceding that it does drive him a little nuts.

Actually, “Lemonade” doesn’t just swing back and forth — it goes on so long, swanning in its own amiable mood, that it’s a little like watching a plane lazily circle the tarmac for most of the afternoon. Clair is an accomplished musician who’s clearly coaxed the sound he wants out of his bandmates, but if there’s a limitation in his current approach, it’s that he sometimes seems content to luxuriate in his virtuosity past the point where he’d do well to tighten up and go for the throat. That’s just what he does on the disc’s most musically dynamic track, “Fatten Your Landlord,” a funny, gorgeously pissed-off piece of invective that Clair and his band attack as if hoping to leave a few bruises. “When you sign your name, you open up a vein,” he screams, as if waving his lease around in Union Square, “and there’ll never be an option to buy!” He’s a New York boy now, all right.

Clair also has a chapbook coming out, a collection of fourteen very short stories collected under the title My Understanding. Written at the rate of one a day (and culled from a hundred days’ output), it turns out to be, surprisingly, a treat, thanks to Clair’s weird, sharp sense of humor. Forced by the nature of the form to get in and out quickly, he unspools a steady stream of sick jokes, quick character sketches and surreal fantasies. If Clair could bring more of this side of his talent into his songwriting, his next record could be something to really look forward to. God knows Clair adapting Clair to music sounds like a better bet right now than Lou Reed adapting Edgar Allan Poe.

Stephen Clair's Website