Thursday, January 3
Walked to this straight from Juno. Bleargh. Tolerance for guileless, sing-song lobotomy-pop thus at a low tide indeed, and yet here I find Mr. Lewis, a Downtown cohort of the Moldy Peaches/Kimya Dawson nexus, dreamily clutching his stickered-up guitar beneath a banner declaring this the “Home of Antifolk.” What the “anti” means in 2008 is up for debate, or derision, if you’re feeling crabby, which I suppose I briefly was.
“Anti-Virtual Lower East Side,” it seems fair to say. The tension between the new and old (and virtual) versions of Jeffrey’s home base seems to weigh heavily on him, or at least as heavily as anything weighs on him, which is to say not heavily at all. Jeffrey is very, very sedate. His deadpan delivery, a wide-eyed valedictorian monotone, has plenty of nerd-rock precedent—TMBG’s John Linnell, or the Dead Milkmen at their slackest—but with fingerpaint bursts of the childlike wonder that’s set the Juno soundtrack’s star disquietingly aflame. Thing is, from the onset, Jeffrey makes that style seem tremendously appealing, both right here at the Sidewalk and back there at the theater.
It’s the a capella song about Ramen that did it, or did it first. With a wobbly, pinched-nose oration, he describes the history of the starving artist’s favorite meal, pinpoints his favorite flavor, and dreams of owning a popular art gallery/restaurant that doesn’t serve it. Most of Jeffrey’s shy, embarrassed between-song banter has a half-poem, half-rap, all-reluctance lilt, and playing guitar doesn’t really change that. His simple, rickety chord changes are more like nervous tics, something to do with his hands, like a guy on a first date distractedly building a pyramid of sugar packets in a diner booth. But it feels more controlled than usual, less an I’m-Still-Five-Years-Old affectation and more of a genuine style. His lyrics mix pawnshop zen koans (“I always kind of like to be surprised/I don’t want to know what happens when I die”) with corny rhyming exercises (“eating Tofutti Cuties with Fela Kuti”) with, when delivered in his shell-shocked Steven Wright mumble, what passes for actual jokes (“You say it’s dog-eat-dog/But dogs don’t eat dogs”).
Then, the climax. “I have a new pedal,” Jeffrey declares. “I got it as a gift. Let’s plug it in and see what it does.” He announces that it’s a Hi Band Flanger, and then he starts playing with it. What it does, evidently, is make eerie birdlike sounds, which we then listen to for roughly five minutes or so, Jeffrey crouched down to manipulate the knobs. (From the bar in the next room—from whence we can catch glimpses of the Orange Bowl on TV and occasionally hear a couple drunk dudes singing along with the stereo on, say, Erasure’s “A Little Respect”—a guy walks in to investigate, stares at Jeffrey’s hunched figure for a few seconds, shakes his head, and walks back to the bar.) When satisfied with his birdlike sounds, Jeffrey gives us the technical specs: MANUAL knob all the way down, DEPTH all the way up, RATE down, and RES just most of the way up. We appreciate this update. He turns it off. We applaud. He then produces a handheld tape recorder, with which he’d been recording everything. He rewinds it, mics it up, hits play, and then sings his next song (featuring “goons with harpoons waiting in adjacent rooms”) with the tape as accompaniment. The song ends, and we applaud live simultaneously with the applause on the tape. I find this all inexplicably profound.
Later this month Jeffrey releases his fourth Rough Trade album, 12 Crass Songs, which is, indeed, a dozen Crass covers, streaming “I Ain’t Thick, It’s Just a Trick” or “Do They Owe Us a Living” (yes) or “Punk Is Dead” (also yes) through a gauzy, full-band prog-folk daze that might remind you of that Why? dude. It’s winsome, if a little bizarre. But Jeffrey’s meant for the stage, rhapsodizing Ramen, testing out his new gear, selling his comic books, and evoking a dog-doesn’t-eat-dog L.E.S. that might not even exist anymore, even online. This will only make you appreciate him more. I don’t see what anyone sees in anyone else.
Jeffrey Lewis plays Joe’s Pub Thursday, January 10, joespub.com. The CD release for 12 Crass Songs takes place at the Mercury Lounge on Wednesday, January 30.