Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Garland Jeffreys

  • Garland Jeffreys [Atlantic, 1973] B+
  • Ghost Writer [A&M, 1977] A-
  • One Eyed-Jack [A&M, 1978] C+
  • American Boy and Girl [A&M, 1979] B
  • Escape Artist [Epic, 1981] B+
  • Rock & Roll Adult [Epic, 1981] B
  • Guts for Love [Epic, 1983] C+
  • Don't Call Me Buckwheat [RCA, 1992] *
  • The King of In Between [Luna Park, 2011] A-
  • 14 Steps to Harlem [Luna Park, 2017] **

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Garland Jeffreys [Atlantic, 1973]
A classy singer-songwriter with staying power; a classless singer-songwriter with at least two bags of tricks. "Black and white as can be" right down to his vocals, he's a living breathing advertisement for the mongrelization of the races, and it's his existential dilemma that permits Michael Cuscuna a gourmet coproduction in which Stonesy blues shuffles rub elbows with reggae from Kingston and a song about the zoo that makes Paul Simon sound like Marlin Perkins. Is he streetwise? Damn right--wise enough to find the streets a little scary. B+

Ghost Writer [A&M, 1977]
Four years is a long time between LPs; if Jeffreys sounded like a talented cult artist on Atlantic in 1973, by now he's collected so much material he sounds like the most fecund singer-songwriter since whoever. Well, save that for the next time. Meanwhile, the racial paradox is dramatized audaciously, the dreams of showbiz glory rendered with an uncommon knowing subtlety, the reggae natural-born, the voice fuller and more passionate, and the album a great buy. A-

One Eyed-Jack [A&M, 1978]
If this were a "sellout" it would be mottled with slavish attempts at a catchiness inimical to the reggaefied groove Jeffreys explores so deliberately. Take it as Product Due from an artist who for some reason hasn't written any of his best songs in the past year, and hope his muse returns. C+

American Boy and Girl [A&M, 1979]
Jeffreys has never shown much knack for love songs, and he's not getting any better with melodies either, which means that half of this encouraging comeback gets by on his acumen as a singer and bandleader. But as you might expect from somebody who rhymes "you know what it's like" with "Wilhelm Reich," he retains his feeling for cafe society and his sense of the street, which synthesize into his eternal theme of making it. And while you might suspect him of sentimentalizing the street kids on the cover, he doesn't--he just cares about them, that's all. B

Escape Artist [Epic, 1981]
After four years of having been, Jeffreys makes like a macher. With Roy Bittan playing the colorist, Garland's affinities with Uncle Bruce are suddenly obvious, and with Big Youth and Linton Kwesi Johnson on counterpoint his reggae ties have never been firmer. "Modern Lovers," his basic theme, is one he knows more intimately than, let us say, Hall & Oates, but my two faves break the mood: "Jump Jump," his greatest name-dropping song and an anthem for rock critics everywhere, and "Miami Beach," Dennis Bovell-produced American dub that's too strong musically and politically to relegate to a bonus EP. Jeffrey's weakness for doggerel sticks out when he's writing this well, and the Springsteen connection reminds me that Ghost Writer's static rhythms cut into its durability. But this man should be given the keys to every city whose streets he walks--ours first. B+

Rock & Roll Adult [Epic, 1981]
Jeffreys and his band (four cheers for the Rumour) are on top of this live material. But such concert faves as "Matador" and "35 Millimeter Dreams" were too stagy on record to begin with, and now, returned to plastic, they're even stagier--without the stage. Shticked to death: "Cool Down Boy." B

Guts for Love [Epic, 1983]
Jeffreys's odd weakness for rock without roll is the ruination of this overproduced, undercomposed anachronism--even the reggae grooves are tinged with synthesized AOR melodrama, and the dance numbers do not jump jump. C+

Don't Call Me Buckwheat [RCA, 1992]
Bigotry 101, from a teacher with tenure ("I Was Afraid of Malcolm," "Murder Jubilee") *

The King of In Between [Luna Park, 2011]
Formally, the biracial Coney Islander is a singer-songwriter in the manner of his artistic contemporary Bruce Springsteen and his college buddy Lou Reed--a singer-songwriter who needs a drummer. Jeffreys is a good guy with loyal friends who made a small name for himself in Europe but faded from view in his hometown 20 years ago. Now at 67 he beats the odds by surpassing 1973's Garland Jeffreys, 1977's Ghost Writer, and all their lesser successors. Doing right by titles like "I'm Alive" and "In God's Waiting Room," it's another mortality album, and sure as bank fees there'll be more. But the good ones will all be different. Although in his in-between way Jeffreys was on reggae early, the only attempted skank here is a pointedly entitled economic crisis song called "All Around the World" that you'll wish bit down as hard as the not-dead-yet "'Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me." Boogieing with a quickness, Jeffreys believes "Rock and Roll Music" will pick you up off the floor at 64, and Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell backs up this idea throughout. But Campbell isn't on his Eurohit cover of David Essex's schlock classic "Rock On," and Jeffreys rocks on all over it anyway. A-

14 Steps to Harlem [Luna Park, 2017]
A racially complex life recalled by someone who's extracted multivalent music from that life for well past four decades ("14 Steps to Harlem," "Colored Boy Said") **