Jeffrey Lewis

City & Eastern Songs

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AllMusic Review by

Dorkily clever wordplay aside, Jeffrey Lewis could have named his third album (the first to be co-credited with his brother Jack) simply "New York City Songs," or even just "Lower East Side Songs." The dozen numbers here ground their inward-gazing personal musings within a highly resonant, perceptive, and fairly conflicted portrait of their particular time and place -- Manhattan and Brooklyn hipsterdom in the early 21st century -- offering the commingling of topical specificity and broadly relatable observations on human experience which marks the best so-called anti-folk music. There's a slightly off-putting duality to the album in that the five songs co-written by the two brothers, which are spaced evenly throughout the track listing, are a good deal louder and more raucous than Jeffrey's typically spare, acoustic solo numbers. They're also slighter pieces of songwriting --even if the punk rock storytelling of "Posters" and "They Always Knew," and the bar-scene snapshot "Art Land" do a nice job of setting the scene and counterbalancing Jeffrey's habitually self-directed focus. As with any other unvarnished encounter with another human's psyche, there's the potential here for considerable annoyance as well as considerable charm, but Lewis has a particular talent for dwelling on his own neuroses without coming off as simply whiney or indulgent: his ruminations always blend in enough sweetness, whimsical humor, or heartfelt honesty to feel endearing rather than alienating. To be sure, there are also some brighter patches -- "The Singing Tree," a sort of mystical allegory about the sources of inspiration; the wryly touching "Moving," with its tender observations on the urban ritual of changing apartments ("you've swept and mopped more today than the entire time that you stayed"); the good-natured brotherly nuttiness of "Time Machine" -- but by and large this is a decidedly neurotic album. Still, as trying as it can be to hear to Lewis bleat on monotonously about his insecurities (as on the self-explanatory "Anxiety Attack"), they're also the well spring for some of the richest material of his career, including the painfully honest relationship saga "Don't Be Upset" and, especially, the brilliant "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror" -- this album's centerpiece and finest offering by far -- which spins a (possibly imagined) sighting of the titular indie folk godhead (on the L train) into a hilarious and insightful rant on fame, artistry, and aspiration, with a surreal, darkly comic finale. That tune on its own is enough to make the album worth checking out, but there are at least another handful of songs strong enough to make it a keeper.

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