[16 September 2003]
A famous cover of The New Yorker depicts the streets of their city detailed in the foreground with the rest of the country and the world sketched lazily in the distance, thus capturing what was supposed to be the typical Big Apple mindset. It’s hard for many of us who live in smaller metropolises to imagine how one’s city could take on such grand importance, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. For instance, the folk scenes of the Lower East Side and the West Village, separated by distances that might unite the ignorant yokels from the rest of the country, despise each other. And to think that some people actually root for professional sports teams that are merely from their region of the country!
The feud, geographically microscopic as it might appear, at least has substantive ideological issues at stake. The once hip West Village at some point turned conservative and sedate, and the wild and woolly Lower East Siders hated them for it. This hatred spawned the anti-folk genre. Within its confines, people who liked punk played acoustic songs railing to a massive extent against Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Now that both those targets have ridden into the sunset, anti-folkies that want to continue on with the experiment such as the Moldy Peaches largely exist to thumb their noses at anyone who presumes that an acoustic guitar necessitates seriousness. Jeffrey Lewis, the comic book illustrator who did the artwork for the Peaches, has a musical career of his own in this vein that has now stretched to two albums. The first, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and Other Favorites made a respectable splash and featured an all-time great album title. His second, It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through, may not have quite the titular panache of its predecessor, but the sonic palate has expanded and the songs have improved, and no one but the most embittered purist of primitivism should object to the changes.
Playing on some tracks with Anders Griffen and brother Jack, Lewis still features his trademark man-with-a-guitar rambling narratives in heavy doses but relieves any sameness with energetic freak-outs like “If You Shoot the Head You Kill the Ghoul” and “No LSD Tonight.” The former is not much more than absurdist glee, but the latter runs deeper, telling the story of how the title track of his debut prompted an endless stream of unwanted acid offers from audience members. Simple enough, perhaps, but Lewis infuses the yarn with touching frustration at seeing his message taken so very wrong. Lewis, like all great eccentrics, attracts an audience comprised partially of smug gawkers come to congratulate themselves for patronizing the weird kid in the coffeehouse. The hurt of being treated as camp if not kitsch for an artist as earnest as Lewis comes through even the song’s hilarious mock entreaties of the would-be LSD-suppliers.
It’s this fine balance of humor and pathos that not only makes Lewis a treat but which launches him above his more visible, scat-minded peers, the Moldy Peaches. His sense of humor has threads in common with the nihilist branch of absurdists, but he also has real feelings and isn’t afraid to show them, feelings which include joy and wonder rather than just the emotional diarrhea of someone like Ani DiFranco. He is a wide-eyed boy in New York City and staying that way against all odds. Like Jonathan Richman (who he resembles in many ways), Lewis has a thin skin and rubs against many of the more abrasive elements of life without letting them knock him down or shutting himself off to them. His bad moods don’t wreck his spirits so much as fascinate him, and his gift for communicating that fascination make It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked succeed despite the inherent self-absorption. Pain doesn’t seem so bad in Lewis’s world, and exploring it like he does on this record doesn’t seem so bad, either.