Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley and Shawn Biggs
The vehicle that Jeffrey Lewis, his brother Jack, Helen Schreiner and David Beauchamp had with them in San Francisco at the end of February and the beginning of March was a scraggly mutt of a contraption. It was a suitcase, packed beyond its gills, squished and jammed and then stepped on and squashed more to get the zipper to find its sister teeth across the way, to finally close with the a groaning and an aching apart. Even more than most touring vans, this one was beat down and exhausted. There was the requisite garbage on the floor, cluttering around the feet like needy pets, a beaten up copy of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and clothes filling in all of the available room between seats and instruments.
There was more, but this isn't an encyclopedic look at a van, just a table setting for the greater cluttering that Lewis and The Jitters do with their songs. It's not unlike what they do with their van - and looking back, it's hard to be sure if we can even call what they were traveling in a van. But I digress. The collection of junk and words and coverings, along with the necessities of affordable packaged foods and musical equipment, is just the beginning to the forested mind of the Lewis boys, who could survive some kind of hermetic existence these days, as long as all of their fascinations and curiosities could be delivered straight to their door - slid through the mail slot. They could live on in their graphic novel heads, where the walls are paper and ink, the furniture and thought bubbles too. They could exist between these walls and the places that they could go while staying in and remaining trapped in a room with what they've already done and what they can string together as auxiliary occurrences are numerous and miscellaneous. They're envisioned as pack rats, living between stacks of comic books, shaky columns of drawings on loose leaf paper that get tripped over at night, books and other non-human viscera that gets stored up in dwellings and people, putting the meat on the ribs, the hair on the chest and the unique part in their hair.
The stuff that gets eyeballed, that gets read and studied, that gets listened to, stands as the amino acids of what kind of character gets build up and into a moveable object with opinions and insight and discerning powers. Jeffrey Lewis is an early 30-something songwriter who's given a lot of credit for being one of the key contributors to the New York City anti-folk movement, though, what does that really mean? It seems that it just means that there's more of an autobiographical bent to the words that are associated with his music. It's not folk music in the traditional form of telling about a hobo or a down and out merchant farmer from the dusty south. They aren't weary tunes about briar bushes and bunny rabbits or the calling of the open roads, the allure of rolling hills and travel. They're mostly songs about existing inside a head and reading every line. It's a prolific draw, doing that, but it explains how one guy could want to make an entire album of reinvented Crass covers - in the vein of this mysterious anti-folk sound - and be enthusiastic about it, because it means something more than just covering songs. It suggests an undeniable attachment to the material - just as belting "Sweet Caroline" at a bar means something different for the people who choose to do it. At some point in Lewis' life, these Crass songs became weird, collected heirlooms that bear his own stampings. At some point your own life becomes your life if you let it. He's made a life out of the illustrations that he sees in his head. He lives in his own idiosyncratic words and most of his songs are emporiums for all of his various interests dancing together on one big floor. A new song that appears here for the first time - and which was actually written by Jack - is special in its viewpoint, a choice to just stay in the attic or the basement until all of the frightening miasma has lifted and the imagined world full of our stuff, real or not, has been restored to its original state.
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Jeffrey Lewis & The Jitters Official Site