You’ve probably heard more from David Berman’s collaborators than from the man himself. You’ve never seen an advertisement for the Silver Jews (the chances are most likely), and you’ve definitely never seen them on tour. That hasn’t stopped Berman’s Silver Jews from releasing five previous cult classic CDs on Drag City. Most often mistaken for a Pavement side project, Silver Jews was actually formed, with guitarist Stephen Malkmus in tow (thus the confusion), in the same year as those other guys. But despite the rotating group of helpers, including Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, Will Oldham, and members of Lambchop and Jesus Lizard, Silver Jews remains the brainchild and artistic outlet of writer / musician David Berman. For those being introduced to the band for the first time, you will see what other fans have seen for thirteen years, brilliant lyrics, genre bending sounds, and an open soul.
I struggled for a long time in trying to describe the Silver Jews’ sound. Berman has lyrics that read like literature, and the music is a combination of jam band skronk, Southern rock and indie liberties. I suppose I could say that the Silver Jews is what would happen if Lou Reed were more fascinated with the old South than with New York. Berman’s semi-autobiographical delvings can result in some really great country rock moments. Take for instance opener, “Punks in the Beerlight,” a remembrance of, as Berman puts it, “two burnouts in love.” “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed” is a faster paced hayride through indie rock. This is a perfect example of my description. This is essentially “Walk on the Wild Side” with chickens and cows instead of prostitutes and cross-dressers. The cross between harmonic pop and hoedown collide in “Animal Shapes,” with wife Cassie on background vocals.
Berman puts a Bukowski-like dark spin on the `tear in your bear’ country song with “I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You.” Take this sample of lyric, “I’ve been working at the airport bar. It’s like Christmas in a submarine. Wings and brandy on a winter’s night. I guess you wouldn’t call it a scene.” Sometimes the titles of songs are even longer and more descriptive than the lyrics within such as in “How Can I Love You If You Won’t Lie Down.” The violin and noodling guitar solos in “The Poor, the Fair and the Good” are pure Allman Brothers / Grateful Dead. One of the standouts is “The Farmer’s Hotel,” cowritten by Malkmus, which is what I’d imagine a song by an extremely drunk and morose Bruce Springsteen would be after he’d been hanging out with Nick Cave.
Upon listening to Tanglewood Numbers, most people wouldn’t think that this was an album four years in the making, and influenced, at least in some minor way, by a descent into drugs that led to an intentional overdose. As Berman screams over and over at the end of closer “There is a Place,” “I saw God’s shadow on this world.” Thankfully, Berman recovered and made Tanglewood Numbers, a moving, jamming, indie country rock free-for-all with a literary heart. Sure, saying `tortured soul’ and `artist’ in the same sentence is being redundant, but Berman embodies both with, as Dr. Franken-steen would say, grace and quiet dignity. And the perfect environment for listening to Tanglewood Numbers? A local college tavern, peanut shells strewn on the floor, a tumbler of Kentucky Bourbon, and a book from Black Sparrow Press.
Smog – Wild Love
Will Oldham – Joya
Lou Reed – Magic and Loss