Jeffrey Lewis' second album opens with a rapid-fire lo-fi machine-gun rap called "Back When I Was 4." Accompanied by a fast but gently strummed acoustic guitar, the song recalls Dylan's "Subterraenean Homesick Blues" as Lewis spews a playful and heartbreaking life story in retrospect with signposts at various ages. When he gets to his 106th year, he slows down the pace and quietly remembers how he flushed a nameless goldfish down the toilet. Thereafter, his enthusiasm (and high tempo) return as he muses on his 128th year, spent sitting on a milk crate watching the neighbors going about their business, commemorating Halloween, for instance, by hanging "A million rubber skeletons across 9th Street." "Back When I was 4" is a stunning introduction and immediately likable, a bad sign, but it hasn't worn out its welcome after several spins. Like a very good comedy routine, it resonates on a several levels. Elsewhere, the album hits and misses. Another one of the better tracks, "No LSD Tonight," deals with the way that his audience misinterpreted the title track from his first album; the previous song apparently told of a bad trip the singer suffered through and his subsequent decision to never drop acid again, but his well-meaning fans constantly offer up free doses. "Gold" and "Sea Song" (with singing whale noises?) could operate as lullabyes, while "Texas," which is sandwiched between those tracks, is a rave-up. "Don't Let the Record Label Take You Out to Lunch" is a (self-explanatory) cautionary admonition about pop-music integrity, and "You Don't Have to Be a Scientist to Do Experiments on Your Own Heart" could be a new standard, if given a chance. Otherwise, "If You Shoot the Head You Kill the Ghoul" is the kind of gratuitous cultural reference that Lewis may regret when it brings in new fans who aren't deep enough to explore his more fascinating corners. With at least half a dozen memorable tracks in as many modes, Lewis' sophomore effort is the kind of tour de force that fans of lo-fi pop have been waiting for since Guided by Voices decided to write songs for the radio. Dan Bern fans also should take note.
COURRIER JOURNAL/LOUISVILLE SCENE (3 1/2)