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Published: 2009/05/22
by Jesse Jarnow

‘Em Are I – Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard

Rough Trade

A few years ago, on his album It’s The Ones Who’ve Cracked That The Light Shines Through, the New York folksinger Jeffrey Lewis sang a song called "I Saw A Hippie Girl On 8th Avenue." "She barely looked at me for a second or two," he says. "Suddenly, I realized I no longer look much like a hippie." Later, he sighs, "It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even identify with most Phish fans anymore."

Lewis is the folksinger of the scarcest kind: one with a point of view. That is, most of what has been called "folk music" for the past 30 years is nothing of the sort, merely some kind of solipsistic expression accompanied by acoustic guitar (that or vague personal/political natterings). And while Lewis's music is nothing if not personal, his values are spelled out fairly literally—no circumlocution, really—perhaps most explicitly/ironically on 2007's 12 Crass Songs, a disc of folksified covers of the anarchistic British band, Crass. Lewis’s music, as performed, might be considered useful, serving a community.

On ‘Em Are I, his first album of new material since 2005’s City and Eastern Songs, Lewis moves elsewhere. Were his songs not so relentlessly personal before, the closest analogue would be Another Side of Bob Dylan, where Dylan shed the trappings of topical folk for love songs and abstract ruminations. Instead, Lewis’s songs grow closer to traditional songwriting: less confessional, more non-linear.

In places, the move fails awfully, notably "Good Old Pig, Gone To Avalon," which comes off as sub-jamband pop. Elsewhere, the generic approach seems like a fine strategy for simple refrains like "Broken Broken Broken Heart," where Lewis's casual-beyond-casual voice locks in on a head-bobber. Without his thought-balloon style lyrics, the music seems to have lost something. It's no surprise, then, that the disc's best songs are its most idiosyncratic.

"Going bald is the most manly thing I'm ever gonna do," he sings on "To Be Objectified," transforming a thought from observation to meditation. "Just tell me that you like me in the same sentence as a mountainside," he sings. On "Roll Bus Roll," Lewis sings a story fragment, leaving Manhattan via the Port Authority Bus Terminal. There's no plot development, but there's lots of perfect detail. "A rolled sweatshirt makes the window soft," says Lewis. It is useful, in a small way, a catchy song from somebody who's been someplace specific and is reporting back. Of course, sometimes catchiness for catchiness's sake is swell, too (like the album's requisite zombie stomp, continuing a Lewis tradition,"Whistle Past the Graveyard").

The closer, "Mini-Theme: Moocher from the Future," begins to reconcile these two sides of Lewis. "She started messing 'round with the King of Saturn, he looked like a purple psychedelic pattern," he sings of the titular robot/alien/time-traveler in one verse, literally a far-away abstraction. A few lines later, he's singing of "New York City, how I love it so, I'm always bumping into buddies whose names I don't know." Eventually, they cross, and Mini takes off without Lewis. One wonders where he's going, anyway.

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