2011-06-13 The New Yorker

Pop Notes | Wild Borough

by Ben Greenman

Rock and roll is like a religion for heretics, and Garland Jeffreys has been a true unbeliever for decades. He made his name in the seventies with a series of tough, smart albums that moved confidently between rock, soul, and reggae, yielding songs like “Wild in the Streets,” “Ghost Writer,” and “Modern Lovers.” As he matured, his work became more essayistic and autobiographical; “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” from 1992, explored his mixed-race upbringing in Brooklyn, the civil-rights era, and the integrationist power of popular music.

Jeffreys’s new album, “The King of In Between”(Luna Park), stays true to what made his reputation in the first place. The cover photo, by Anton Corbijn, shows the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard and Malcolm X Boulevard, in Harlem, and that spirit animates the record: it’s both humble and defiant, nostalgic and restless. It opens with “Coney Island Winter,” a stark but hopeful portrait of the outer reaches of Brooklyn (“twenty-two stops to the city”) that ends with an aging rocker’s wish (“Don’t want to die onstage / with a microphone in my hand”). The second song, “I’m Alive,” is an anthemic tale of surviving early stardom and foolhardy youth.

Most of the album is spent coming to terms with old(er) age, and with the fact that rock and roll still serves as a fountain of youth. “Rock and Roll Music” celebrates the ability of the art form to clarify and uplift; “’Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” reaches back into soul, blues, and jazz, allowing Jeffreys to express his admiration for artists such as James Brown, Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong. Elsewhere, Jeffreys is a home-town booster (in “Roller Coaster Town,” he notes that he was “born a thousand yards from the Cyclone”), a worried parent (in “Streetwise,” he hopes that he has taught his daughter how to survive in the city), and a philosopher (in “The Beautiful Truth,” he muses on the value of error, like a Zen Dylan). On the funky “The Contortionist,” which is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” Lou Reed provides backup vocals, as does Jeffreys’s teen-age daughter, Savannah, but it’s Jeffreys’s show, and the lyrics are among the album’s most personal: “I used to be a contortionist / Doing that and doing this / Swallowing rings and swords and things / Life was bent and I was twisted.”

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