Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Jeffrey Lewis [extended]

  • The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane [Rough Trade, 2002] *
  • It's the Ones Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through [Rough Trade, 2003] **
  • 12 Crass Songs [Rough Trade, 2008] C-
  • Em Are I [Rough Trade, 2009] A-
  • Come on Board [no label, 2011] A-
  • A Turn in the Dream-Songs [Rough Trade, 2011] A-
  • Hey Hey It's . . . the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band [self-released, 2013] A
  • Manhattan [Rough Trade, 2015] A
  • Works by Tuli Kupferberg (1923-2010) [Don Giovanni, 2018] B+
  • Bad Wiring [Don Giovanni, 2019] A-
  • Both Ways [Bandcamp, 2021] A
  • When That Really Old Cat Dies [Spotify/Amazon/Apple, 2022] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane [Rough Trade, 2002]
forlorn, funny (anti) folkie who isn't getting laid ("Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song," "Life") *

It's the Ones Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through [Rough Trade, 2003]
Doubles as a cartoonist, where it's harder to cram so many words in ("Don't Let the Record Company Take You Out to Lunch," "You Don't Have to Be a Scientist to Do Experiments on Your Own Heart"). **

12 Crass Songs [Rough Trade, 2008]
Drolly self-deprecating anti-folkie covers iconic anarcho-punk Purists for ultraleft analysis in musical form--that's just what this reeling world could use, you'd think. And indeed, it's not altogether stupid. But it's also hate-filled and hateful--not just the Crass, but second-generation beatnik Lewis, who like most hereditary bohemians was brought up to think he's better than normal people. However well he understands capitalist exploitation, his emotional response is stunted: "I hate the living dead and their work in factories/They go like sheep to their production lines." ("Like sheep"--what a cool image!) Historically, people in this economy have taken what they can get and had some fun in their spare time. They like Sarah Palin because they know she's as smart as Jeffrey Lewis and suspect they're not all that far behind themselves. C-

Jeffrey Lewis & the Junkyard: Em Are I [Rough Trade, 2009]
Wry and contemplative, suddenly established anti-folkie delivers strophic tunes about the riddles of eternity, a pet pig of questionable historicity, trying to catch some Z's on a Greyhound bus, and that greatest of all riddles, love. Aided by his rickety little band, every one flows unimpeded by musical fooforaw, the occasional chorus included. At his worst, Lewis can be a wise-ass scold. At his best he's a vulnerable master of the humorously ineffable and a tribute to the humanism of a SUNY education and the Lower East Side. A-

Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis: Come on Board [no label, 2011]
Stampfel will be 73 this year, hence perhaps his get-it-while-you-can production surge. Not only are albums tumbling out of him, he's gigging like crazy and sitting in with one of his many friends whenever he can. In fact, that's how this keepsake came about--as something to sell on an already scheduled U.K. tour, recorded in two dark days at the winter solstice. The equally hyperactive young Lewis proves an even better fit than his harmonizing daughter ZoŽ--the Sparrow to his Tuli, only each has more to say. The unrehearsed band make for a discernible improvement over Stampfel's recent Uncle Gramps and ZoŽ records and a drastic one over his Worm All-Stars record, as do Lewis's not-quite-nonsense songs for Jules Verne and Madame Tussaud and his fiddle-fed 10-minute earworm of a strophic closer. Stampfel's contributions include two of the dreamsongs he writes whenever he wakes up with a melody bouncing around his brain, several welcome remakes of old Antonias, and a lovely, loving throwaway called "Love Love Love." And here's the 72-year-old fun part. Lewis has a website and Stampfel a MySpace thingy. But the only simple way to obtain this enduring work of whatever-it-is is to buy a postage stamp and send a brief note and a check for 15 smackeroos to Peter Stampfel, Post Office Box 223, New York NY 10014. In the note, which can include words of love and encouragement if you like, ask him to mail you one. Hell, ask him to sign it. You have nothing to lose. A-

A Turn in the Dream-Songs [Rough Trade, 2011]
So maybe the idea of this oddly constructed album is to "turn" from some OK meditative songs at track five, commencing a run of six A-OK outgoing ones before re"turn"ing to three meditative ones--and then breaking a minute of silence with the gangsta-ripping "Mosquito Mass Murderist"? That's a guideline, anyway. Try "Cult Boyfriend," one of the funnier and more philosophical of the many reflections on romantic frustration this lifetime bohemian's cult career has afforded. Or "When You're by Yourself," one of the sadder and more touching of the many reflections on romantic frustration this lifetime bohemian's cult career has afforded. Or the all-encompassing "Krongu Green Slime," a cartoonist-cum-folkie's six-minute history of consumerism from "the time before land" to "the time after land." It's also about the meaning of life, if there is one. A-

Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel: Hey Hey It's . . . the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band [self-released, 2013]
To borrow a keyword from the "Mule Train" finale, you could complain that this clippety-clops. Presumably the revised version the liner notes promise will move at a smarter clip, because the drummer who spent a single weekend recording 13 songs she'd met a week before will since then have spent long sticky nights with them on tour. But that's only if the revised version materializes, which cannot be counted a certainty even though 37-year-old stripling Lewis is the least occasional of Stampfel's life list of weird birds. And however shambolic the songs are or aren't, you'll want to hear almost every one anyway. Where to begin? "All the Time in the World" redefining immortality? "Indie Bands on Tour" redefining folk culture? "Do You Know Who I Am?! I'm %$&*?in' Snooki!!" celebrating a reality Stampfel has never really encountered? The Tuli parody, the Stampfel remake, the Patti Page rewrite, the Tommy Jackson lyrics-added, the one that has the 74-year-old Stampfel apologizing that he doesn't "yet have the skills to write a '64-'65 Beach Boys song"? Put it on shuffle and decide for yourself. A

Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts: Manhattan [Rough Trade, 2015]
The title tune of Lewis's catchiest and finest album lasts eight subtly varied, steadfastly strophic minutes, its only bridge the Williamsburg, which Lewis and his girlfriend cross on foot as he tells her it's over before putting her on the subway back to Brooklyn. Pushing 40 now, this second-generation bohemian knows his turf from "Scowling Crackhead Ian," where the kid who held a knife to his throat in junior high is still befouling St. Marks Place, to "The Pigeon," which stuffs some 30 choice Yiddishisms--"schnorrer," "verkakte," "furshlugginer," oy gevalt--into a Poe-parodying Delancey Street anti-gentrification kvetch. As promised only a hell of a lot slower, he spends nearly five minutes collecting his thoughts in "It Only Takes a Moment." But he gets where he's going just about every time. A

Jeffrey Lewis and the Deposit Returners: Works by Tuli Kupferberg (1923-2010) [Don Giovanni, 2018]
Late great New York bohemian Kupferberg loved "parodies," which originally just meant songs that set new lyrics to old tunes: the more erotic than fetishistic "I Want to Hold Your Foot," say, or "This Train Is Bound for Brooklyn," as in "This train is bound for Brighton / If you wanna go to Bay Ridge you're not on the right one." But he also wrote the enraptured Fugs threnody "Morning Morning," covered by such worthies as Joan Baez and Spyder Turner but done just as right by the living-room sing-along Lewis convened for this album. This approach has its limitations, but gets the job done. Try "What Are You Doing After the Orgy?," melodicized by Lewis from a Kupferberg notebook, which dreams of extracting friendship from orgasm. Try "Life Is Strange," where an aged heir of Aristide Bruant reports he's perfectly OK with never having once seen Paris. B+

Jeffrey Lewis & the Voltage: Bad Wiring [Don Giovanni, 2019]
Lewis's folk-rock has the usual musical limitations: strophic and strummed, it proceeds in a straight line with scarcely a bridge to the final iteration of a chorus catchier than the verse, with Lewis's nagging East Village sprechgesang fusing built-in sarcasm with earned yearning. But half the verses proceed so hummably you could call them catchy, which gives the album room to let the rest sink in at a more leisurely pace. The "And about our relationship" refrain of "My Girlfriend Doesn't Worry" will have you replaying the album instantly, the better to shake hands with the tragic alt-everything takeoff "Exactly What Nobody Wanted" and the pre-vinyl-revival "LPs," followed next time by "Except for the Fact That It Isn't" and "Dogs of My Neighborhood." And eventually you'll realize that the statement of principle here is "Take It for Granted," a cliche Lewis has learned to appreciate. In this frightening time, he's old enough to have figured out that the shock of the new isn't always an up while something that'll be there next time can be. And in this vinyl-reviving time he's packaged the CD with a cartoonist's art-directed intricacy that mere downloaders would never guess was there without me kvelling about it. A-

The Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band: Both Ways [Bandcamp, 2021]
Recorded in 2017 with Stampfel's voice undiminished, this 22-track double album is available only via Lewis's Bandcamp page. It reprises many Stampfel & Antonia chestnuts while introducing many new Lewis songs, some of which cop melodies from such sources as Jimmy Driftwood, the Searchers, Cyndi Lauper, Anthology of American Folk Music, and a Stampfel banjo fantasia. Then there are covers of such arcana as Hawkwind's "Orgone Accumulator," Autosalvage's "Same White Light," (Lou Reed and) the Beachnuts' "Cycle Annie," and retrofitted ditties from the life list in Stampfel's memory book. The Lauper steal "True Tax Forms" addresses a now deposed president. "Heroin" is repurposed with lyrics that merit the stark title "Internet" before "Marquee Moon" is covered straight next track. And the opener is an every-which-way musical manifesto the rest of this curated, offhand hodgepodge embodies like there's no tomorrow on the off chance that there may be one. A

When That Really Old Cat Dies [Spotify/Amazon/Apple, 2022]
Downloadable as I write from Amazon and Apple, Lewis designates these seven songs "a dumping ground for tracks I didn't have any other place to put." He first uploaded them to Spotify because he'd been told "that Spotify has internal automatic compression/volume stuff, to standardize all recordings." Unfortunately, he reports, "it seems not to really work--I think the volumes are inconsistent." No audiophile myself, I'd say that's inconsequential given how much I admire these seven selections, mostly outtakes from 2015's Manhattan and 2019's Bad Wiring. The halting, tender title threnody evokes the eccentricities and need for privacy I've observed as my own cats reached their ends. But that's just a beginning here as the songs proceed immediately to the surprisingly persuasive "What I Love Most in England (Is the Food)" and continues from the last-minute birthday party announcement "You're Invited" to the climactic "Guest List Song." Inspirational Verse: "You bought me a brew once in two thousand and two/You did a favor for me and so I did one for you/Yeah I put you on the guest list and I did it on two other occasions/But when you ask the fourth time maybe that's the statute of limitations." A-

See Also