One of the most endearing and underappreciated acquired tastes in contemporary music, the New York band Clem Snide makes what can be viewed on the surface as pretty, sad, periodically smart-alecky alt-country music. But the cumulative effect of the group's gently winning sound inspires as much friendship as admiration: Like a warm cup of spiked cocoa, its three albums radiate comfort while retaining the potential to unsettle. One of the most instantly distinctive lyricists around, Eef Barzelay melds wordplay, pop-culture references, poetry, and keen observational detail, an approach served well by his backing band's understated arrangements, each softened by Jason Glasser's cello and Jeff Marshall's stand-up bass. It would be nearly impossible for The Ghost Of Fashion to replicate the appeal and consistent mood of last year's Your Favorite Music, but it does stretch out in engaging and surprising ways, bolstered by Glasser's inventive production. A few tracks suffer from Barzelay's tendency to let his wry delivery devolve into a whine ("Ice Cube," "Moment In The Sun"), while others feel like minor throwaways ("The Ballad Of Unzer Charlie," the mostly instrumental "Evil vs. Good," a reworking of "Chinese Baby" from 1998's You Were A Diamond). But Fashion sacrifices consistency for dizzying highlights. "The Junky Jews" is an infectious, rocking ode to Corey Feldman, "Long Lost Twin" is an evocative, twisty mid-tempo ballad, and "The Curse Of Great Beauty" and "Joan Jett Of Arc" combine to form the best six-minute chunk of music released so far this year. Those songs couldn't be more different"Curse" viciously dismisses a lover, while "Joan" is a sweet ballad that transcends its reliance on absurd punsbut the icy bitterness and graceful nostalgia fit perfectly side by side, held together with seamless grace. Like its predecessors, The Ghost Of Fashion reveals intricacies with each exposure, making it another essential album by a band that has yet to produce anything else.