Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
Eef Barzelay, as I've written about him on two other occasions on this site, is one of the finest current songwriters in America. He's one of those guys who quietly gets ignored by many making such lists - just like Joe Pernice, Bill Callahan, Richard Swift and Cass McCombs get overlooked. It's cruelly unfair, but it is what it happens to be. The Nashvillian is here, as we first discovered as the lead singer and writer for Clem Snide, as that same sharp-eyed, incisive observer of the many failed attempts of humans overcoming the very depth of what that means. It seems to mean that there are going to be plenty of unfortunate episodes that will trip us from behind, press our faces down and into the murky mud puddle and then help us back up, onto to carry out the same dastardly outcome. There is no navigating around these fumbles and they force us into the kind of defeated, but still crafty smirks of those who have a feeling that this may be as good as it gets - which would be a shame - but there's been no confirmation of this. So, the smirk is a smirk and not something different, not a brooding, rooting crease. Barzelay buries himself into the tragedies of walking around, of loving and of floating along miserably, without any indication that there will be breaks in the clouds or a rosy outlook. He tackles all of these subjects with such deft skill and with a heartbreaking compassion that there's no reason to call him a dealer of sadness. It's within those unspoken words - of which there are many in every Clem Snide song as well as those that he's released for the last couple of years under his own name - that we hear what's really at play in the pits and chambers of these sunken people. What's really at play are the slivers of sanity that accompany even the lowest moments that one may encounter in the course of a situation. The unreleased Clem Snide song, played here with great effect - "Punched In The Heart," gives an example of just what this making-the-best-of-it can be. It's a tumbling number, a road song that feels as if someone's pedaling something really quickly at the start of it, trying to get somewhere or nowhere as fast as possible. The main character of the song has just been told that a relationship is ending, not on his terms, and this drives him manic. It turns him into an escapist, a driver with no destination, but adrenaline to carry him further than gasoline ever will. This guy is reeling and, we picture him in a small compact car or a small, rusty pick-up truck just churning up the mileage. He finds himself at some sort of impasse that allows him to stop - maybe he was out of gas, maybe he just needed convenience store food to stop the belly howls - and it happens to be a Wal-Mart parking lot. It's there that something flashes and those words between the lines - the ones that actually explain what could bring a smirk back to the face of this wounded man - are clarified. Barzelay sings, "And let me tell you something/Sunrise in a Wal-Mart parking lot…it can be so beautiful." The man doesn't leave that parking lot for a while and as the hurt is recounted again in the second verse - this time as punches to the brain, in the brain and tear ducts too, happen, and this is after the punches to the throat, the heart and the kneecaps - and he witnesses a sunset in that same lot. And it felt like the same kind of spark - one that could be encouraging and turn this hurt into something elegant and worthwhile. Barzelay does this all the time. The knife gets twisted and then we he offers us a chance to see that the spilled blood is somewhat pretty as well and if it heals, that scar becomes a beauty mark.