Em Are I is the fifth album by Jeffrey Lewis, an underground cartoon artist from Brooklyn, New York. When he’s not drawing story boards, Jeff pens neurotic anthems for the laptop generation.
Don’t accept any substitutes; Jeff is the real deal, singing in your language about situations that you can relate to. Jeff’s songs are like blog entries set to music – You know, regular stuff that happens to everybody every day. You won’t find big drama or flights into fantasy worlds in Lewis’ songs. The attraction lies in the way that Jeff tells it, straight and full of well observed detail.
Jeff’s way to deal with serious subjects is to find a funny, often self-depreciating angle and to deliver his lines in a totally deadpan way. ‘Broken Broken Broken Heart’ with its protagonist regretting the thoughtless way he screwed up a relationship by describing his behaviour in ever more funny allegories is classic Jeff Lewis. -Broken Broken Broken Heart’ is also definitely the hit on the album, combining as unlikely a collection of elements as a Sam Cooke Gospel style intensity with feverish hand claps, folky guitar strumming and an inanely catchy melody.
After relationships, mortality gets a look-in with Jeff confessing he’s not too pushed on finding out what will happen after he dies on ‘Whistle Past The Graveyard’. Before the vibes of this morbid subject are getting too heavy, Jeff takes flight in the killer (pardon the pun) line that, if he passes a graveyard he whistles when he walks so he can’t hear the corpses talk. ‘I don’t wanna hear them grumble or complain,’ sings Jeff, ‘or discuss how much they want to eat my brain.’ Childish? Maybe, but who didn’t smile at that line?
With his deadpan humour and appreciation of basic rock ‘n’ roll, Jeff follows in the tradition of Jonathan Richman, the proto Punk rocker who dropped out of the New York scene in ’77 to develop his own brand of whimsical acoustic roots Rock. Like Richman, Jeff keeps his songs deceptively simple. Em Are I is not a pretentious album.
Take ‘Roll Bus Roll’, for example. The song is like an entire road movie condensed into four-minutes. It is full of low key drama, just the kind of minor things that happen as the protagonist – presumably Jeff himself – is travelling across Europe. At no time does any of this sound like Jeff embellished the detail. Yet, despite the lack of exotic goings on, you get drawn in and want to find out more about what happened.
Recorded in glorious, gritty analogue at Emandee Studio in Brooklyn, Em Are I features Jeff’s brother Jack on bass and his regular drummer Dave Beauchamp. Jeff’s small gang was joined in the studio by friends including French act Herman Dune and Post-Punk guitar hero J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. fame.
Like Jeff’s previous albums, Em Are I is a proud example of a ‘Do It Yourself’ approach that could not be further removed from studied poses and carefully cultivated image. The video for ‘To Be Objectified’ (see below) cost $99 to make and nevertheless became ‘clip of the day’ on both YouTube and Yahoo. No need to reinvent yourself as a rock star, Jeff seems to say, even a regular guy can do it.
Or maybe the ‘regular guy’ thing is a fiendishly clever anti-image. You would need to be quite cynical to believe that when faced with a record as free of cynicism as Em Are I. This is the real thing, an honest, fun-packed rock album to lift your spirits.
Christian Lorenz is the editor of Tuneraker