When Eef Barzelay released his first solo record, 2006’s Bitter Honey, it wasn’t really obvious what he was getting out of the experience. In many ways, it sounded pretty much like a Clem Snide record, which is to be expected since Barzelay was the band’s leader and sole songwriter. Bitter Honey might have been a little stripped-down, but “Ballad of Bitter Honey”, his narrative from the perspective of a dancing girl in a Ludacris video, had Clem Snide archness written all over it. Looking back at songs like “Ballad of Bitter Honey” in the context of his newest solo effort, Lose Big, however, it’s now obvious that Barzelay was beginning to explore characters and personas to say something serious and genuine in his songs.
Lose Big continues in that vein, and it’s a clear sign that Barzelay is faring quite well in his post-Clem Snide world. The record finds Barzelay stretching out, not only in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of arrangements and sound. Things don’t begin well, though, with lead-off track “Could Be Worse”. Featuring loud guitar chords that obscure rather plain vocals by Barzelay, the song discards one of Barzelay’s greatest strengths: the cracking fragility of his voice. As he sings “I can’t find comfort in the fact that it could be worse”, guitars crunching around him, he sounds like pretty much everyone else. That’s quickly remedied, though, as “The Girls Don’t Care” adopts a full-bodied arrangement but allows Barzelay’s vulnerability to come through. His tongue-in-cheek advice to himself and guys in general, though, will probably anger many an indie girl: “Girls don’t care that you ache to be free / See, the girls just want a sweet melody … don’t listen to Frank Zappa, [or] play Coltrane, Faust, or Can.” And then he wraps the song up by going — shades of Clem Snide’s “Mike Kalinsky” — into just the type of arrangement he’s been talking about.
From there, Barzelay finds ways to play with his sound. “How Dare They” features distorted rumbles of percussion and buzzing guitar, broken by quiet acoustic interludes, as Barzelay sings, “How dare they crash the party in your mind.” It’s a smooth segue from there to “Apocalyptic Friend”, which accuses, “When Rapture comes I understand your car will likely be unmanned / But what about those sitting in the back / Strapped into the baby seat / Sweet milk sticking to their feet / Is this the joy felt waking up your heart?” In the tradition of End of Love‘s “Jews for Jesus Blues” and “God Answers Back”, “Apocalyptic Friend” adds to Barzelay’s growing collection of religion-themed songs. “Apocalyptic Friend” isn’t all condemnation, though, finding compassion for its subject by song’s end. The lilting “True Freedom” is another good example of Barzelay’s ability to twist a song back on itself. You couldn’t ask for a more relaxed arrangement, but Barzelay’s smitten lyrics turn out to be the dark thoughts of a man who’s taken a bottle of pills. It’s one of Barzelay’s most important techniques, this ability to treat his songs almost like short stories. They gain a complexity and a sobriety that was missing from much (though not all) of his Clem Snide work. It was the kind of thing Clem Snide fans didn’t know they were missing when Barzelay was wallowing in word play on songs like “Joan Jett of Arc”, but now that he’s placing a priority on giving his words resonance, they seem like more than pretty, ornate curiosities.
Barzelay reportedly has at least one unreleased Clem Snide record in hand, Hungry Bird, waiting for a proper time to release it into the world. One track from that disc, “Me No”, appears here as a bonus track. Mixing images of combs made from bones with “bah bah bah” choruses, falsetto keening, and kazoos, it might be the last gasp of Clem Snide irony. Barzelay, however, describes the album in intriguing terms, often using the word “apocalyptic”, so maybe it’s equally likely to act as a bridge between Clem Snide and the songwriter that Barzelay felt himself turning into. Time will tell, but however the Clem Snide chapter ends, it’s safe to say that Barzelay is thriving.