When Garland Jeffreys followed the excellent Ghostwriter with last year’s relatively lackluster One-Eyed Jack, I suspected that he might be a one-shot wonder. Now that I’ve savored American Boy & Girl, however, my fears have vanished. True, no single track on the current set proves as arresting as Ghostwriter‘s “Wild in the Streets” and “Spanish Town”; but the sustained high quality of the new package marks it as Jeffreys’s best to date.
Even if you could somehow ignore the potent lyrics here, you’d be in for a noteworthy experience. Jeffreys’s seamless arrangements—which incorporate Latin and rock rhythms as well as modified reggae—feature lots of ear-catching sax breaks and appropriately ominous percussion. And his prominently mixed, deftly phrased vocals, which capture an impressively wide range of emotions, constitute an aural delight throughout.
Like too few other current albums, moreover, American Boy & Girl couples its good music with powerful social commentary. The title, as Jeffreys has explained, refers not to the kids who live out American dreeam success stories, but to “urban throwaways from places like Brooklyn and New Jersey, deprived of home life, exiled on the streets.” Jeffreys dedicates the album to two such “child-adults” and uses their pictures on the jacket here; the record itself features the effusive words of another street kid and addresses the plight of those like him in nearly every song.
Jeffreys has tackled this subject previously, on such One-Eyed Jack tunes as “Keep On Trying” and on Ghostwriter, which the singer dedicated to “the abused and battered children of the world.” But American Boy & Girl, which conveys the reality of urban street kids almost as well as Springsteen does in “New York City Serenade,” evidences unprecedented authority, compassion, and insight. After hearing the record, you may wish that more artists shared the sentiments of Jeffreys, who has commented that “. . . many people feel it’s a cliche to show concern about these kinds of issues. They make statements like ‘You’re living in the 60s.’ To me . . .it’s obvious this is still very serious business. Especially now, as we stand on the threshold of the 80s.”