After five studio albums, Eef Barzelay decided to take a break from his day job as lead singer for the bittersweet country-infused indie rock of Clem Snide and strike out on his own, for at least this one album. Barzelay, bestowed with one of the greatest names in the history of the world, does not veer far from the Clem Snide path on Bitter Honey but Clem Snide’s focal point has always been Barzelay, with his unique, sometimes nasally voice and quirky lyrics. Barzelay’s voice has only gotten stronger with each Clem Snide release. His wails on Bitter Honey sound like a less tormented Jeff Mangum and his lyrics remain in their state of constant quirkiness, which begs the question: why a solo album?
Bitter Honey is split into two parts. Part I, named after the album itself, gives one answer to the above question, as Barzelay takes off his bandleader hat and does the more traditional singer-songwriter thing for awhile. Accompaniment is mostly limited to an acoustic guitar while the record still maintains a polished sound and, when paired with Barzelay’s certainly un-run-of-the-mill voice, Bitter Honey sounds like the long lost cousin of The Mountain Goats’ masterpiece Tallahassee, especially on songs like “Thanksgiving Waves” and “Well,” the latter being Bitter Honey‘s best track.
But Barzelay is not as lyrically nimble as Mountain Goat John
Darnielle and the lack of a backing band exposes some weaknesses in songwriting. Bitter Honey‘s opening track, “The Ballad of Bitter Honey,” tells the story of a hip-hop video hottie (the ones that would make Tawny Kitaen look like a nun). “That was my ass you saw bouncing next to Ludacris. / It was only on-screen for a second, but it’s kind of hard to miss. / And all those other hoochie skanks / They ain’t got shit on me / And one of Nelly’s bodyguards, he totally agreed,” Barzelay sings. Barzelay doesn’t quite assume the character fully as a lyricist, and, despite the pretty acoustic strumming in the background, the song is quite off-putting. Barzelay has that affect, in that his lyrics are often incongruous with the music played underneath, making it exceedingly hard to not cock your heard to the side and say, “Huh?” every time one of the weirder lyrics rears its (for lack of a better word) ugly head.
Part II, called “Let Us Be Naked,” forces the listener to re-ask the question: why, Eef, a solo album? “Let Us Be Naked” opens with the criminally underdeveloped “Little Red Dot.” With a little more oomph, “Little Red Dot” would make a great Clem Snide song, which makes you wonder whether all of these songs wouldn’t be better with the power of Clem Snide behind Barzelay. Nevertheless, “Let Us Be Naked” is stronger than Bitter Honey because Eef allows himself to be more more adventurous, adapting a Richard Swift-ian canned effect for the vocals of “Let us be Naked” and a Neko Case-esque echo effect for country tune “I Wasn’t Really Drunk.” “Let Us Be Naked” ends with a stark version of “Joy to the World,” where Barzelay keeps his vocals and accompanying instrumentation minimal, ending Bitter Honey on a beautiful note.
Bitter Honey ends up being exactly what every Clem Snide release ends up being—not groundbreaking, not earth shattering, sometimes even downright mediocre, but still a good time. And after fully absorbing Bitter Honey for all that it entails, the only answer to our eternal question has to be, “Why not?”
Clem Snide – The Ghost of Fashion
The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee
Smog – Red Apple Falls