Artist Spotlight: Eef Barzeley – Eldorado series

It’s not every day we run across such a phenomenally unique as the Eldorado Series by Eef Barzeley (Clem Snide). Conventional, traditional roots country music with some incredible lyrical flexibility, this is an explicit series in which Barzeley incorporates lyrics from his fans. Sometimes comical, sometimes deeply cynical, and often downright nonsensical, it’s a series that readers of ETTG need to know about. It’s just charming and delightful.

The first entry in this series came in the summer of 2013. There have been twelve of these fabulous little custom EPs since then. Bridging the gap between artistry and fandom, the recordings smack of genuine cultural artifacts. In addition to traditional music forms, Barzeley even chooses old time photographs (presumably because they’re out of copyright?) for the album covers. They could probably be an article themselves.

It would take a bit too much time to talk about every track on each of these EPs, so let me hit a few highlights and why they are the highlights. Sounding a bit like Woody Guthrie’s generation of folk singers more than today’s polished hand-clap, gang-vocal sound, the solo acoustic guitar and stilted lead vocal comes together for a sound that is not just timeless, but authentic.

In the theater of the absurd we find a waltz form version of “I want you to want me” and the “Ballad of Calliou.” See what I mean? How can I seriously address this kind of bizarre-yet-awesome artistry?

The off-the-cuff style of “Favorite Things” (yes, the Christmas classic) on the second EP in the series is particularly good. Probably a ukulele or similar smaller stringed instrument, the song has a more serious aesthetic than it might seem at first. Although minimalist in its structure, it’s genuinely a beautiful listen in its own way. Barzeley delivers lyrics as if he means them and these tracks are not meant to be farce.

On the third album the “How can you mend a broken heart” is a wonderful serious song. It’s complex. The last track “Open Melody” is instrumental with a special note encouraging listeners to write their own words. It’s a great idea and works really well for a creative series.

The fourth EP has my favorite of the album covers, a now-colorized version of a black and white photograph from some time in the 1930s depicting a car accident. It’s a great image that introduces an equally intriguing album. It includes tracks from Bob Dylan and BJ Thomas. The classics “All along the watchtower” and “Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head” steal the show.

In the fifth installment, Eef focuses on the theme of love. The opener is “This magic moment” and probably the highlight of the EP. What’s incredible about all of these songs is that they are so typically Eef Barzeley in style, despite being from different genres. He’s a true musician in his ability to strip down all complex melodies and styles to a sweet, subtle folk traditional style. Even disturbing lyrics (“The Great Barrier Reef”) feel genuine and powerful, even when they are a bit trashy.

The “Song for Arash” is an amazing story from the sixth EP. Eef included an email about a person named Arash who took his own life. His best friend asked for the song to be written about him. Barzeley does an incredible job of personifying the email writer’s emotions. “Despite the long shadows of your endless despair…” It’s a phenomenally written song not because it has a sweet hook or because it will shoot up the itunes charts. It’s great because it’s human and pure. Go listen to it.

“The Ends of the Earth” on the seventh EP is just a wonderfully-typical Eef tune. It’s clever and witty and just the right kind of intimate. He even mimicks horns. I mean – who doesn’t love a singer songwriter that mimicks horns. “Emma” is an understated, complicated acoustic jam that puts me in the mind of something David Crosby could have written. It’s got a kind of jazz intricacy to it and, as only Barzeley seems to be able to do, it just feels familiar. And “Song for Grandad” is very heartfelt. He wrote it because his grandfather deserved a song. 🙂

The eighth installment was dedicated to fans who recently had children. It’s just about as cute as you might imagine. “Audrey” is a bit of a lullaby and a challenge to live life to the fullest. It’s super sweet. Although they each have their own flavor, they all seem to convey a deep love for the child and a hard-to-believe connection between artist and baby. It’s an amazing idea and well executed.

Eldorado Nine is a little less sentimental and a little more esoteric. It has the same storytelling characteristics, but seems nestled in the midst of a more complicated story. “The Kingdom” seems like a major philosophical statement. It’s like it’s meant to be the most important song certainly on the EP and one of the most important in the whole collection. “Some say the kingdom is within us, not beyond or above.” It’s about love indwelling for humanity. Give it a whirl – it’s a good one.

The tenth volume starts off with a theological piece called “The Ballad of God’s Love.” Barzeley seems to be presenting a sort of humanist perspective in which God resides inside of all people and life is about finding that force inside of us. What really makes the track work, though, is the evident enthusiasm that Barzeley presents. It’s genuine and deeply personal. “Swimming in the Sea of You” is one of my favorites in the whole collection. Eef brought along some friends for a sound that feels a bit like CSNY. The harmonies are tight and the melody just flows. It’s a great and comforting track.

Eldorado Eleven is a darker set of songs overall. “Marty” is the class of the EP and it’s another deeply existential track. Barzeley’s wrestling with the notion of temporality on earth. There’s much to say about this perspective that’s probably not fitting for an artist spotlight, but if we focus on the music here – well it sounds and feels desperate and seeking. Which seems appropriate.

Eldorado Twelve is one of the most interesting collections because the lyrics were written by fans. They’re some pretty great lyrics, too. Eef did a great job giving each song a rhythm and melody that suits the lyrics. It’s the sort of crown jewel in the collaboration, as I see it. For what it’s worth, “Hell to Pay” is a legitimate country song. It’s one of the best in the whole El Dorado project.

The final album so far is 13 slash 14. It’s twice as long and packed with great work. It feels like there’s little new to say about the project. It’s novel and exciting and comes through in every track. “Heaven” is a wonderful way to end the album and the project as it stands. It’s about a band playing at a party that’s like heaven. Sounds like my kind of heaven, too.

This is just a stunning project and something I’ve been dying to write about for several months. I’ve never heard of such a brilliant collaboration between an artist and his fans. People’s ideas and dreams and thoughts can come alive here. Eef Barzeley surely seems like a phenomenally talented musician, but an even more fascinating human being who sees the deeply human connections that come through music. He could probably write top-40 pop music if he wanted to, but instead he uses his genius to connect with our hearts. For that, we owe him our thanks. We are the benefactors and we salute you, troubador.

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