Sometimes the first time you hear a band can linger long in the memory; for us that was undeniably the case with Jeffrey Lewis. It would have been around 2002, late at night, listening to John Peel, and it instantly leapt out of the speakers. Even amongst the gems and unlistenable noises of a 2000’s Peel Show, this was weird and exciting and thrilling. As a teenager who’s major musical influence was whatever was in the NME that week, Jeffrey Lewis’ music was like a gateway drug; it opened up worlds of indie-pop, DIY-punk, anti-folk and all the various strings of influences that ended up shaping this site that you’re reading now. When the alternative mainstream was all slick indie kids forming bands that sounded like Television or The New York Dolls between classes at art school, Jeffrey Lewis offered a real alternative. Even to a teenager growing up 3,386 miles from New York, it was clear the city he was so regularly singing about wasn’t the same one Interpol or The Strokes were occupying.
Some eighteen years on from his iconic debut album, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane And Other Favourites, Jeffrey is back this week with a brand new album, Bad Wiring. Remarkably his first album to get a proper release in his native America, the record is produced with the latest incarnation of his backing band, The Voltage, a reference to his middle name Lightning, “the result of being born on the Lower East Side in the 1970s to hippie parents“.
While any review of a Jeffrey Lewis album is likely to focus on his lyricism, and worry not we’ll get to that, what’s really clear on Bad Wiring is just how far Jeffrey’s music has come. While never an out and out acoustic folkie – even his debut had the punky assault of The Man With The Golden Arm – those early records tended to be minimal and lo-fi. Listening to Bad Wiring the metamorphosis is clear, it’s a sprawling collection of musical creativity, from the riotous garage-rock of LPs, to the bluesy interlude of Knucklehead / Happy Rain and the krautrock influenced, In Certain Orders. Working with producer Roger Moutenot, Jeffrey and The Voltage have wrung every drop of creativity from these songs, working with a method of playing everything through live on the first day and then collaboratively working out what was best for each track. Recorded in Nashville, Jeffrey jokes that everyone thinks this is his country album, and while a long way from Keith Urban, it does have a certain hi-fi quality, by Jeffrey Lewis standards anyway.
Lyrically, it’s a record that showcases everything so many have loved about his previous output. There’s moments of great humour, raw sadness and everything in between. Perhaps what’s changed slightly, is that this feels a more personal record, we get a bit more of an insight into where Jeffrey’s brain is at. Depression! Despair! is simultaneously a story of struggle and one of togetherness, with the repeated line, “depression, despair, I’ll see you there“. The gorgeous slow burning closer Not Supposed To Be Wise is both a call for the world to show some brains and a reflection on our own mortality, “I guess we’re not supposed to be wise if everything that learns also dies“. While current personal favourite, My Girlfriend Doesn’t Worry, is a classically Jeffrey anxiety spiral; his brain spinning off into what Chairman Mao would make of his music and the dark charms of Charles Manson, while his girlfriend suggests, “that doesn’t make any sense you should just think about your art and your friends and about our relationship” There’s still time for charming asides though, the aforementioned LPs is a brief history of Jeffrey’s record buying back story, while Dog Of My Neighbourhood is a tribute to the dogs he meets on a daily basis, “I don’t know related names, although each ones got names to me, and each associated to a neighbour store or family. there goes Dancing Pete and here comes Market Mutt and Lego Mug, there goes Massive Feet and here comes Target Cut and Mega Slug”.
His music career might be old enough to go to University, yet on Bad Wiring it seems as fresh and exciting as ever. While it’s too early to call it his best album to date, we’re looking forward to spending the next eighteen years working that out.
Ahead of the release, Jeffrey has put together his, “12 Song Blues Mixtape”, featuring the likes of Bessie Smith, Mississippi John Hurt and Lou Reed.
1. Blind Willie McTell – Dying Crapshooter’s Blues (1956)
I love the explanation and the playing and the singing and the story. And the crackly recording. All the careful numerical calculating too. “He wanted me to play this over his grave… That, I did.”
2. Champion Jack Dupree – Silent Partner (1955)
My favorite blues guy. My dad has all these Champion Jack Dupree LPs from the 50s and I started taping them and listening to them. I had never liked the blues stuff I had head before as a kid, like Muddy Waters or BB King, I guess the macho electric blues didn’t appeal to me. But when I started hearing this kind of atmospheric, humble narrative stuff I just loved it, and I love Champion Jack’s style. I don’t know why nobody ever seems to mention Champion Jack Dupree, I buy his records every time I see them.
3. Sylvester Weaver & Walter Beasley – Me & My Tapeworm (Hungry Blues) (1927)
Tragic and hilarious. The poor guy’s got a tapeworm. He’s so hungry he’d even eat the plates. I think it was Dave Tattersall of the Wave Pictures who first turned me on to Sylvester Weaver.
4. Abner Jay – Cocaine
“Why do you think kids like rock & roll? Because it’s terrible!” An all-time great recording, so entertaining, his stories, his jokes, his singing and playing.
5. Bessie Smith – Wasted Life Blues
Now there’s a title to sum up depression! “I’ve lived a life but nothin’ I’ve gained/ Each day I’m full of sorrow and pain.”
6. John Lee Hooker – I’m Mad Again
I originally fell in love with this song from the Animals’ killer cover version, but the original is great in a different way, scarier too! I love a good narrative song, obviously. People who complain about violence in modern music don’t seem to know that violence has always been in music.
7. Armand Schaubroeck Steals – God Made the Blues to Kill Me (2014)
Even tho it’s really long, it’s worth every minute, and I’ve put this on a lot of mixes for people. I love all of Armand Schaubroeck’s weird 1970s self-released LPs, none of which have ever been reissued as far as I know. He’s not a blues guy; when I saw this 10-inch modern recording of his in a record store I was highly incredulous. First of all, it’s a “comeback” recording, decades after the albums I’d known; plus it’s a rock guy doing what seemed like maybe a long blues jam, and those sorts of things usually are terrible. Comeback recordings, rock bands doing blues songs, and long blues jams, a recipe for disaster. But this song is utterly incredible to me. It’s heartbreaking and powerful and killer, it’s the work of somebody who seems to really not give a fuck, he’s just getting the emotion down in the recording. And it is relentlessly bleak, hammering you with the horror of Vietnam for this whole long recording, one horror after another, until the climax. An astounding record to me. SO glad I took a chance on buying it. The only problem is that the B-side of the vinyl is just an alternate mix of the same song. So has the guy only recorded ONE song in the past 30 years?? Not even a B-side?
8. Lightnin’ Hopkins – Rainy Day Blues
Sitting in my shack in the woods in the woods in Maine, with no electricity, no lights, just gloomy and dark on a rainy day. Trying to draw comic books in the dim light, with this song playing on a battery-operated tape-player, it rang quite true. My middle name is Lightning, my dad was a big blues fan so maybe this is who I was named after.
9. Mississippi John Hurt – Coffee Blues
“Maxwell House, it’s good to the last drop” – So funny, putting in this commercial brand and slogan, what is he, Wesley Willis?! Was he paid to do this? Anyway, this style of playing and singing is so mellow and magical and soothing. This is the folk-blues style of picking and playing that my father plays when there’s a guitar around, so this is a sound that I sort of grew up with around the apartment.
10. Brownie McGhee – Barbecue Any Old Time (1941)
I love the scratchy sound, and I love the joy of all that list of eatables.
11. Lou Reed – See That My Grave is Kept Clean
It’s highly unusual to hear Lou Reed doing a blues song, according to legend he would fine the members of the Velvet Underground $5 if he heard them dare to play anything that sounded like a blues lick! But here’s Lou, as an older man, facing down death with his deeply-lined face and gravelly voice, he’s no blues man but he gives it his all. There’s two versions on Youtube, I prefer this 12-minute performance but there’s also a 7-min version (although I think he does a better job with this 12-min version, I like the way the 7-min version ends: Lou flicks his guitar pick into the audience at the end, like, there, I’m done – with the song, and with life.)
12. Ma Rainey – Prove It On Me Blues
“I went out last night with a crowd of my friends/
It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan/ Talk to the gals just like any old man”
That’s really bad-ass for 1928… some nice proto-beatboxing sounds too! Is that a jug? Weird little vocal noises is like that 13th Floor Elevators sound too.
Bad Wiring is out November 1st via Moshi Moshi / Don Giovanni Records. Click HERE for more information on Jeffrey Lewis