If Tanglewood Numbers was a boisterous night out on the town, then Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is the Advil-fueled comedown. David Berman’s Silver Jews started acting like a proper band after the release of their fifth album in 2005, and rightly so; the glorious cacophony of “Punks in the Beerlight” and “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed” were practically begging the notoriously tour-shy Berman to hit the road.
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is a curious follow-up to the band’s career high point (although Berman would undoubtedly blanch at the word “career” being used to describe the Jews’ peculiar trajectory). The album has one foot in the past and one foot in the present, simultaneously recalling the country-fied Jews sound of yore while also allowing Berman’s wife, Cassie, more vocal time than ever before.
The album begins with the heavily tremoloed “What Is Not But Could Be If,” which combines Berman’s love of country with some Morricone-esque twangy guitar. The mood of the album is momentarily elevated with “Aloysius Bluegrass Drummer,” which is a strident plinky-plonky barroom number that provides a perfect template for keyboard player (and sometime Lambchop member) Tony Crow.
Cassie’s first vocal contribution arrives in a touching duet with her husband on an ode to a rundown jukebox (“Suffering Jukebox”), which features some resolutely excellent lyrics (“Suffering jukebox/ Such a sad machine/ You’re all filled up/ With what other people mean”) and discreetly plucked slide guitar. Most of the album rolls along at mid-tempo (“Strange Victory Strange Defeat,” the cover of Japanese composer Maher Shalal Hash Baz’s “Open Field”), with Berman sticking close to the country-rock formula that has served him so well.
There’s not much here that will elevate the band beyond their current status. Bermanites will still revel in his idiosyncratic lyrics, and they can even play along thanks to an insert that lists all the chords used on the record. Occasional sound effects provide fleeting moments of amusement, such as the blaring foghorn on “Party Barge,” but for the most part this is simply another fine demonstration of Berman’s superlative songwriting skills.
David Berman has long been heralded as one of the best songwriters working in indie rock. His literate are chops on full display on Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, particularly with tunes like "What Is Not But Could Be If" and "We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing." Indeed, Berman has claimed that Lookout, the follow-up to 2005's Tanglewood Numbers, is packed with epic storytelling. It was recorded in Nashville and Lexington, Virginia. Berman's wife, Cassie, plays on the album, but alas, there's no guest apperance from long-time Berman bud Stephen Malkmus.
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