In a long career that so far has never quite jelled into all
it could be, Garland Jeffreys has made some good records and one great one,
1977’s Ghost Writer. He also wrote
and recorded a memorably savvy and eccentric rocker, 1973’s “Wild in the
Streets,” that managed to be both ebullient and cautionary.
That he’s never really had the success he deserved, or tried
so hard to attain, hasn’t deterred or embittered him, though it has slowed him
down. The King of In Between, on his
own Luna Park label, besides being his best album since Ghost Writer, is his first one featuring new material since 1997’s Wildlife Dictionary, which itself was
released only in Europe.
But Jeffreys has stayed true to and been sustained by those
parts of his identity that have fueled his music – his mixed-race background,
Brooklyn rearing, college studies in art history, keen interest in literature,
friendship with Velvets Lou Reed and John Cale, love of rock, reggae, blues and
R&B. And, crucially important, his faith in New York as a potential urban
For The King of In
Between, Jeffreys has found a supportive spirit in co-producer Larry Campbell,
the former guitarist for Bob Dylan who has guided Levon Helm’s comeback.
Campbell doesn’t force a uniform sound on Jeffrey’s songs. Rather, he lets
Jeffreys choose the approach – unpretentious but energetic roots-rock, reggae,
Curtis Mayfield-style soul, rockabilly – and then records the musicians
(Jeffreys plays acoustic guitar) to give each track a crisp instrumental
dimensionality that avoids slickness or bombast. (The opening song, the driving
yet intimate “Coney Island Winter,” was produced by Jeffreys and Mark Bosch,
and is one of the album’s best.)
But the album’s strongest element is Jeffreys, himself.
Since Ghost Writer, he has had a
tendency to flatten out his melodies to accommodate his storytelling. But here,
the songs have perfect chord changes at perfect moments, giving them just the
right tuneful lilt or bite to support his voice and message. And his singing –
gruff yet honeyed, soulfully emotional and capable of sass or yearning, humor
or heartfelt wisdom – is top-notch. He saves his highest-register yelps for the
most powerful moments, as on “God’s Waiting Room” (which mentions both Staple
Singers and the Teardrop Explodes, revealing his wide frame of reference.) As a
compassionate Boomer rocker who sees the American dream reflected in his own
life, on this album he gives Springsteen a run for the money.
The writing, too, is strong, expressing the concerns and
fears of a rocker in his late 60s, but also being defiantly hopeful about the
future. But there’s nothing obviously sentimental, or easy, in his
observations. They seem hard-earned, a result of the life he’s led. “Coney
Island Winter” uses sharply descriptive imagery of that Brooklyn amusement park
in winter as a metaphor for systems shutting down, and ends with Jeffreys
announcing, “I’m on a mission of my
own/Don’t wanna die on stage/With a microphone in my hand.” As if to
underscore that, the song leads into the super-rousing “I’m Alive.”
On “The Contortionist,” with Lou Reed adding backing vocals,
Jeffreys finds an apt circus metaphor for the balancing act of surviving the
excesses of the rock ‘n’ roll scene in order to keep living close to the music
he loves. And in the celebratory rockabilly strut of “Rock and Roll Music,”
it’s clearly evident he still loves it – and is still really good at it. In the
ska-like “Roller Coaster Town,” it’s also clearly evident he loves New York.
One reason Ghost
Writer was such a strong album was its ability to mine the darker,
melancholy, drifting-blues side of reggae, without being shallowly imitative.
On “The Beautiful Truth,” he draws on that again, helped by Duke Levine’s
wah-wah guitar and solid drums and bass of Steve Jordan and Mike Merritt.
The King of In Between isn’t perfect. “‘Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” is too blatant in showing its
Hooker boogie-blues shuffle and is musically dull; a remake of David Essex’s
“Rock On” has a processed sound at odds with the rest of the record.
But overall, with this album Jeffreys joins a group of other
rock-oriented recording artists of a certain age – Alejandro Escovedo, Willie
Nile, Elliott Murphy – who, while never being hit-makers, see what they do as
being as legitimate and important as blues or folk or country. They’re one
important reason why good, solid rock ‘n’ roll is a permanent fixture of the
American musical landscape, whether or not it’s in fashion at any given moment.
As the Showmen put it long ago, and I’m sure Jeffreys knows it, “rock and roll
Island Winter,” “The Beautiful Truth” STEVEN ROSEN