Garland Jeffreys

The King of in Between

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"I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive, not dead," sings Garland Jeffreys on his first release in 13 years. Repetitious? Sure, but it's a logical declaration since his albums are so sporadic -- this is only his third in nearly two decades -- most '80s fans have probably forgotten him entirely or, perhaps worse, think he falls into the onetime next-big-thing bucket who, despite critical praise and consistently challenging albums, never fulfilled that expectation. Jeffreys tends to focus his albums around a topic, with 1992's Don't Call Me Buckwheat geared toward race relations and 1997's Wildlife Dictionary mulling aspects of love and sex. This time out, he spotlights New York City, specifically his love for his hometown, although matters of mortality (the aforementioned "I'm Alive") and romance drift through song titles such as "The Beautiful Truth" and "Love Is Not a Cliché." The production by ex-Dylan associate Larry Campbell ranges from full-on rock & roll to more stripped-down, classic '70s Curtis Mayfield funk/soul on the epic "Streetwise" and, as usual for Jeffreys, short forays into credible reggae and even ska. In fact, "Roller Coaster Town" sounds like it could have slotted on an early Specials album. Like New York City, it's a mash-up of diversity that congeals into a logical whole through Jeffreys' distinctive and always impassioned vocals. The opening "Coney Island Winter" sets the tone, both musically and lyrically, as Jeffreys reminiscences about his youth in that section of New York City, wrapping his aging into the narrative of the amusement park that has rotted away, comparing its wintry crumbling with his own as he sings "don't want to die on stage with a microphone in my hand." It's a heavy concept with defiant, thumping drums pushing the melody like a pumping heartbeat. Old friend Lou Reed joins a background set of vocals, although he is barely recognizable on "The Contortionist," another unflinching look back at Jeffreys' life and mistakes made set against a singalong "doo doo" chorus readymade for audience participation. The singer expands his musical palette on a John Lee Hooker-styled boogie for the appropriately titled "Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me" that also namechecks Fats Domino, James Brown, Frank Sinatra, Bo Diddley, and Louis Armstrong, and again explores his sense of mortality with the lyrics "…not gettin' any younger/and I'm not feelin' very old." The closing Delta blues strips the sound down to just acoustic and electric guitars as Jeffreys mulls over his own death and what his life has meant. Regardless of the serious topics, Jeffreys' music is almost giddy in its approach, a perfect contrast to words that are generally far less joyful. It's a melancholy but never depressing 50 minutes that proves what an under-the-radar talent Jeffreys remains, and indicates that his best work might even be ahead of him. But not if he waits another 13 years to release it.

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