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Tasting 'Bitter Honey,' Tongue in Cheek

Eef Barzelay knows how to mix humor and heartbreak. As leader of the band Clem Snide, he's sung from the perspective of folk-pop lightweight Jewel and conspiracy theorist David Icke, and he's concocted cello-tinged odes to the music of Nick Drake, the uncertainty of the future, and a life spent wasting away on the couch.

While he's at it, Barzelay frequently explores the dark underbelly of vanity, as his new solo album Bitter Honey finds him wishing that a loved one would die, "just to see how I would look." "The Ballad Of Bitter Honey" finds Barzelay adopting the persona of a scantily clad dancer in a hip-hop video featuring Ludacris -- within a few seconds he lays the groundwork for a tongue-in-cheek look at a show-business bit player.

But the singer's gift for intertwining wryness with warmth takes over by the second verse, as his subject's back story begins to fill out: a death in the family, a side road to nursing school, a philosophy of getting ahead in life. By the end, Barzelay finds appropriately bittersweet profundity in what had once seemed like a throwaway joke.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)