Garland Jeffreys' New Album

It's a given that anyone who loves records and had the experience of working in a record store has vivid memories of being at work on Tuesdays when the UPS truck would bring the new releases for that week. The ritual was almost always the same. Like starved animals, vinyl-mad clerks, all in rock'n'roll t-shirts, many in an altered states even at 11 in the morning, would rip into boxes from Warner Bros, or Columbia, or whoever, and snatch their copies of the LPs they had to have—blowing most of their meager pay in the process. It took me years to realize that it might be best if I worked somewhere where it might actually be possible to take some money home every two weeks.

One particular Tuesday, several copies of Garland Jeffreys' Ghost Writer popped out of a box and a discussion ensued about what section it belonged in. In the music business, eclecticism has always been something of a profane term, one that clashes with ideas of commerciality and selling records. "So they get racked under what?" was once a key question. If the genre wasn't obvious, if it was a round peg that didn't readily fit into an obvious square hole like metal, jazz, or folk, then a record stood a fairly strong chance of being stuffed in the wrong bin where even dedicated fans couldn't find it. Thankfully, the search functions of the digital age have basically eliminated genre classifications and solved that problem.

My Jeffreys moment unfolded in the western US, many miles from Garland's New York City hometown, and as I was the only knowledgeable fan, I voted for the rock section. Others loudly protested that it was a folk record. A lone voice maintained he knew Jeffreys' music and that he was a blues cat. The decider, the store manager, slipped the records into the country section under G.

As a mixed race singer-songwriter from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, one who could write politically-themed numbers, play the blues with authority, dabble convincingly in reggae, and finally, pen one of the all-time greatest NYC anthems, "Wild In The Streets," Jeffreys has made a career out of being hard to describe, impossible to pigeonhole. In many ways, Jeffreys had the same influences and interests in his head that Springsteen later fashioned into superstardom. Members of the E Street Band were actually a part of Jeffreys' other most memorable album, 1981's Escape Artist. Although he has extended periods of silence in his career and only 12 releases since 1970, Jeffreys' latest, 14 Steps to Harlem, shows the now 73 year-old singer/songwriter still reveling in eclecticism and the kind of wide-ranging songwriting that has today become a lost art.

Opening with the anthemic rock stomper "When You Call My Name," he shifts gears on the next track, the bouncy, guitar, and blues-harp rockabilly of "Schoolyard Blues." Always an intensely autobiographical songwriter, Jeffreys returns here to the subject of his NYC upbringing in the title track, where his "Mama worked in a sugar factory/Domino was the name." "Venus" mixes an R&B snap into another Gotham classic that extols that archetypal "Pretty girl I'd like to meet/See the light I feel the heat." This album's reggae number "Reggae on Broadway," recounts when Joe Strummer and the Clash came to see Jeffreys perform. In "Colored Boy Said," he returns to autobiography and repeats the line, "I Got a President Who Looks Like Me."

Any missteps here like "Time Goes Away," where the lyrics are too simple and obvious (but where he's accompanied on voice and piano by his daughter Savannah), or "Spanish Heart" which is a little too sweet and joyous for its own good, are more than offset by Jeffreys' incredible cover of The Beatles "Help." Wonderfully wrenching is about as close as mere words can get to describing a version for this tune that Jeffreys has obviously been thinking about and honing for many years. His still-elastic voice and a perfectly placed accordion make this slow-paced reading a sly powerhouse. Another classy page in the saga of a very special song craftsman.

Pryso's picture

His only recording I have is "Don't Call Me Buckwheat", one I enjoy for its diversity, humor, and pretty good sonics.