February 27, 2012

Fuel/Friends Chapel Session #12 :: Eef Barzelay (of Clem Snide)

[a non-traditional photo, for an exceptional chapel session]

I mean no slight to the eminent photographability of the man behind this post, as I usually start all my Chapel writeups with a visual of our time spent beneath those Romanesque arches. But I came across this photo as I was marveling for the three-dozenth time at the songs that Eef Barzelay poured out for us that night, and it just fit, so flawlessly. The ossified yellowy shades of need, affection, accident, and habit — all cradled and balanced perfectly. For once. When you listen to this extraordinary chapel session, maybe it will make sense to you too.

Let’s set this straight from the beginning. Saying that Eef Barzelay (of the band Clem Snide) is a standard songwriter is akin to saying that David Foster Wallace uses a few moderately interesting vocabulary words in his books. Eef thrills me. Eef pens songs that flay me. There are just a select few songwriters in this world that feel as though they are thinking with my same brain. They say things that make me gasp with how stunningly they fit the neural pathways I have threaded together over my lifetime. Eef gets my brain, my ways of characterizing and explaining things, my heart.

One of the primary effects I am looking for in a song is for that minute where it takes me completely out of my head and away from my logic, and I feel something burning hot and bright – cut free from the crud of the world, and defying logical connection. Something feels like it will be okay, even if it is not okay.

I saw Eef Barzelay perform three times the weekend this chapel session was recorded. The first night was in the small Marmalade Art Gallery by the train tracks just south of downtown, where Eef played to a full small room of folks perched in folding chairs, under a flock of paper cranes swinging in flight overhead. He introduced several of his short films assembled from “found footage” — primarily clips documenting slowed-down natural animal and human behavior, scored with his own original songs, layered with visual effects, and all coming to a gluey, sharp point.

Something in me cracked open during one of his films of a snake slowly eating a baby owl alive, soundtracked by a potent punch of an original song. In that four minutes there was a strange peace in the cessation of the fighting. As sad as it was (fuzzy baby animals!), it was utterly and completely brilliant, that song. There in my folding chair, I just leaked a steady, quiet, miniature river of tears for the next hour through the rest of his films and on through his live acoustic set with his bass ukulele. I couldn’t even exactly say precisely why, except that maybe I felt understood.

This is one of my favorite chapel sessions so far, because it is so densely loaded with stunners, and with truth. As Eef sings in another one of his songs, “No one gets through this life without making a mess.”

The quietude of the chapel naturally seems to extract the reverential, introspective songs from musicians. That evening was the perfect setting for Eef to introduce us to several songs all about a woman named Mary, from a forthcoming record, Songs For Mary. I don’t know who she is — a real person, an alias, or an abstract summation of femininity — but that is not important, because what we do know is that Eef pours the most beautifully honest truths out to her. Come.

SEPTEMBER 25, 2011

The Ballad of God’s Love
Man — right out of the gate, this song packs one of the biggest wallops of truth I have heard about any of our insides in a long time. Eef plainly sings, “And don’t, don’t be shy to look yourself dead in the eye / the emptiness you feel inside, well would you believe …but that’s where God’s love hides.” Paired with track 3, and you got yourself a pretty potent theology that I can get behind. I haven’t felt that in a long time.

Let Us Sail On
Eef described the late night that he wrote this song, in a Motel 6 off I-40 in Arkansas, listening to trucks rumble by outside at 3am. As the TV glowed soft and blue with music infomercials, Eef decided to pen his contribution to “yacht rock.” Despite the affinity that I think Christopher Cross might feel toward the idea, this one pierces much more deeply. Oh, how we diffused the light.

Of the five, this is the song from the session I have listened to the most. It contains the absolute jaw-smack of a lyric: “Mary, history is never wrong / still it’s only to this moment we belong. So if your inner scaffolding feels frail / just remember God loves mostly those who fail.” The lines that follow those ones are also just as staggering. This song came on shuffle for me in November, when I was wandering the National Gallery in London alone at night. I love to wander alone at night in museums, soundtracking with songs that take on new meanings through the hybrid. Across the room, my eyes landed on a Michelangelo painting, an unfinished Michelangelo. It was the beginnings and the middles of his attempt to paint Christ’s entombment. In the lower right-hand corner, Mary was slated but missing. Like all of Michelangelo’s work, it spoke to me like seeing an old friend across the crowded room. I sat on a bench in front of that picture and thought for a long time about omissions, changes in directions, Mary, art, and what we call failure.

Fill Me With Your Light
The only already-released song from our session, this sweetly unnerving song is off of the 2005 Clem Snide record End of Love. I believe Eef said it was about a guy he used to work with at a record store in Boston who said he was being visited by aliens in his room at night, and that the song was about a different kind of dark.

All Good Hearts Go Astray
Another wide-open, penetrating song to Mary that confronts myriad failures (burning the barns that we’ve raised) with a simple plea for the forgiveness that we all, really, need so much. All good hearts go astray, sometimes. There is so much grace woven throughout this chapel session, the real, crushingly difficult kind. And for that I am grateful.


September 23, 2011

Eef Barzelay (Clem Snide) can cover for me any old time

I’ve said before that I honestly think Eef Barzelay of Clem Snide is one of the most piercing, insightful, weirdly-perfect songwriters making music right now. I saw him live a few years ago in support of his 2009 release Hungry Bird, and his literacy and ability to emotionally incise caught me in an ambush. I commented that it was like an SAT study party, and we could invite John Darnielle and Colin Meloy and I would die happy. Around that time, this was one of my most-listened to songs, with its bluesy melody that somehow manages to feel effervescent through the weight. When Eef repeated the line over and over again – “We are just bracing for the impact by loosening our limbs…” something in my chest still tightens. “Every single one of us has a kitten up a tree.”

Born A Man – Clem Snide

Eef also has this superhuman knack for covering songs in the best possible way, where you stop and hear something in a way you never did before. It’s like when you are washing dishes at the kitchen sink and pause to look up out the window because you hear a thunder crash with the approaching storm, and suddenly your whole yard is bathed in this eerie greenish light. It’s still your yard, the one you’ve sat in a hundred times, but all of a sudden it is foreign and strangely beautiful.

After releasing a startlingly seriously-pretty EP of Journey covers in June, this week Eef released a new cover songs album of selections suggested by fans. The most surprising has got to be his take on Nine Inch Nails’ “The Becoming,” and the purest the rendition of “In the Aeroplane Over The Sea.” Take a listen:

And this remains my all-time favorite cover I think he could ever do – instead of Nico’s halting German alienation, we get a warm hymn, laced with that gorgeous, sad, knowing cello:

I’ll Be Your Mirror (Velvet Underground) – Clem Snide

SHOW ALERT: Eef plays this weekend in Armstrong Hall on the Colorado College campus, opening for Minnesota slowcore pioneers Low (Sunday night, 7pm). It is interesting to note that Armstrong Hall is so very close to Shove Chapel, home of the chapel sessions.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

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