CD Review: Truth Serum by Garland Jeffreys

Truth-SerumThis review is long overdue. Garland Jeffreys is a long-time favorite, whose voice has remained robust and vibrant into his seventh decade. He’s sung alongside many greats including Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger. He has the ability to combine rock, blues and reggae into a rootsy mix with a socially progressive viewpoint.

Truth Serum begins with the title track and a low, ominous electric guitar blues vamp that would sound perfectly in place on a Lucinda Williams recording. A honky-tonk blues harp, the player’s hands obviously cupped around the microphone, forms a Greek chorus for the song’s message: Sometimes a stiff drink will cut through all the b.s. Get it down so fast and that’s all she wrote / lies, lies, lies and alibis, still don’t hear no truth.

“Any rain” got the most airplay when the album was released last fall. It might be the most melodic track on the album. The lyrics are an appeal for social harmony: Suffering is optional, I heard a wise man say / You can live on violence / or you can make it fade away … Any rain, black rain, red rain / anything to ease the pain / anything to ease my sanity. Recently an interviewer asked if his songs were reactionary to political injustice. He responded: “Yes, it is. It just hurts to see it.”

Although not written for his friend of over 50 years, the recently deceased Lou Reed, “It’s What I Am” has found a place in his repertoire as a tribute to Lou. What I say and how I live / are means to me is what I give / Still alive by the skin of my own teeth / I crawl right through from underneath … I say to all my friends I’ll always be a part of you / No matter where I go / no matter what I do / It’s what I am, It’s what I am.

“Dragons to Slay,” concerned with speaking out against social ills, is a very effective Reggae number that Bob Marley would be happy to have written. In a few places, Garland’s voice is a close approximation of Marley, who called Garland, “The best American Reggae singer.”

“Is This the Real World,” a hopeful song, starts with steady 4/4 tremolo on an acoustic guitar which is soon joined by a drumbeat before the rest of the band joins the party. Dry your eyes, wipe away your tears / Blue your sky, your blues will disappear… It’s a new day comin’ round … I can’t be your optimist / I won’t be your pessimist / when you live in a world like this / something’s got to pull you through / Is This the real world?

Listening to “Collide the Generations,” we’re reminded that this is a 70-year-old guy who has an 17-year-old daughter, Savannah Jeffreys. She’s obviously helping to keep him young. A musician herself (her vocal and piano-based videos of original compositions are getting increasing hits on Youtube), she inspired this track. Percolating under a snarling electric lead guitar and another employing distortion booster is a drum beat designed to pull listeners out of their seats and onto a dance floor. Garland sings: Daddy’s little girl … crashed a generation… It’s about the collision of generations from parent to child and vice versa. When it comes to his daughter, Garland embraces it. This collision works.

What is truly mind-boggling about this album is that all the tracks were recorded live, in ONE take. It helped that Garland enlisted the likes of Larry Campbell and Duke Levine on guitars, Steve Jordan on drums (except one track — he left to join an Eric Clapton tour), Brian Mitchell on keys and Zev Katz on bass.

He’ll play one show on February 22 at Tim McCloone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park, NJ, then a number of dates in Scotland and the U.K. before returning to New York for a show at the Highline Ballroom on March 28.
This is an album worth adding to your collection and Garland is someone worth seeing live.