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Thursday, March 9, 2006 03:39 am

Eek! Amid Eef’s gems, a gaffe or two

Barzelay’s solo debut: one measly voice and one measly acoustic guitar

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Eef Barzelay Bitter Honey (spinART)
Eef Barzelay’s solo debut is exactly that: a solo album, consisting entirely of one measly voice and one measly acoustic guitar (well, almost — one very short track also features a bit of ambient bird chatter). Stripped down to the barest of essentials, Bitter Honey may lack some of the verve and variety that characterized Barzelay’s work with Clem Snide, the band he’s fronted since 1991, but the ultraminimalist instrumentation focuses the listener’s attention on the singer/songwriter’s trump card. Most Clem Snide fans are lyrics people anyway, people who think it’s perfectly fine and not at all pretentious when some bespectacled indie-rock dude names his band after a character in a William S. Burroughs novel or comes up with a song title such as “Joan Jett of Arc.” Members of Barzelay’s demographic market read McSweeney’s and wear itty-bitty T-shirts with ironic slogans; a dearth of hott lixx won’t harsh their buzz one bit. Given the priorities of Barzelay’s geekbase, the album’s austerity would seem at first to be a big plus. His reedy, adenoidal voice cuts through the mellow six-string strum like a tonic, harsh but pleasantly stimulating; every word is perfectly decipherable without the need for a lyric booklet. Moreover, the strongest songs rank among his very best. “The Ballad of Bitter Honey,” a four-verse life lesson told from the perspective of a rap-video starlet, is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking: “That was my ass you saw bouncin’ next to Ludacris/It was only on screen for a second, but it’s kinda hard to miss/And all those other hoochie skanks, they ain’t got s**t on me/And one of Nelly’s bodyguards, he totally agreed.” “Words That Escape Me” dissects a lover’s complicated emotional state, that seldom-discussed mixture of masochism, narcissism, fear, and aggression: “Sometimes I wish you would die/Just to see how I would look/By the ambulance light with a grief-stricken face/And the thought that we’ve never been closer.” Bitter Honey’s sparseness is a double-edged sword, however, exposing Barzelay’s weaknesses in addition to his strengths. Eventually the album begins to sound somewhat monotonous, and it’s probably a good thing that it clocks in at just over 30 minutes. The guitar accompaniment is competent, if seldom flashy (the Tejano-tinged “Let Us Be Naked” being a lovely exception), but it’s not enough to distract the listener from the occasional missteps. Couplets such as “If I’m to escape from this/From you I will need a kiss” and “Nothing is real since you kissed me/A-floating away we shall be” are hard to ignore when so little else is happening. For a lyricist of his caliber to strain the conventions of syntax and idiom just to eke out a dumb rhyme borders on unforgivable, and his fans, many of whom have probably done time in creative-writing workshops, are sure to cringe. Fortunately, however, the gems outweigh the gaffes, and these short stories in the form of folk songs have a shambling grace that ultimately redeems them. I’ve never understood critics who complain that Barzelay is too clever by half, too crippled by hipsterdom to relate to normal, sincere people who, you know, actually feel stuff. On the contrary, he strikes me as almost pathologically sentimental, whether he’s singing about the existential braveness of a bootylicious hustler, the fragile innocence of a child, or a drunken hookup gone wrong. To be sure, his meticulous craftsmanship is always apparent, which might offend those who believe that the only genuine art is completely spontaneous, if not anti-intellectual. But as the poet Marvin Bell once said, “art is the refuge of our helplessness.” Barzelay, who has probably read him, would no doubt agree.
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