Berman isn't concerned with the pretentiousness or elitism that is
deserved of brilliant artists who toil for years in obscurity but
inevitably end up clutched in the red right hand of those far less
deserving. I know this because on "Punks in the Beerlight," which opens
Tanglewood Numbers, the first Silver Jews album in four
years, the chorus is "I love you to the max" and comes attached to '80s
synths and a timed, obvious finish. It's a line that Berman is clearly
above: He's a published poet capable of spinning historical themes into
his work, aware enough to throw out a liner-note shout-out to the
Library of Congress and curious enough to ponder the plight of farm
animals just one track later, on "Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed,"
when he says "grass in the pasture sharper than a bayonet." Berman
isn't looking to construct unnecessary barriers between his output and
his audience. He even concedes on the banjo-picked bayou stomp of "How
Can I Love You If You Won't Lie Down" that "it won't get more profound."
he is concerned with is drinking. Lines such as "where's the paper bag
that holds the liquor, just in case I feel the need to puke" and shots
of "Dixie hemlock to take care of the pain" make you wonder how he
pulls off a stable home life with Cassie Berman, his wife and highly
visible Tanglewood collaborator. All this fuels what
turns out to be a proper Silver Jews rock album, which is to say it has
the feel of a drunk snapping into his second wind long enough to belt
out a few. That should satisfy those who may be turned off by Berman's
voice, although even at his most rockin' his harmonizing shouldn't be
compared to anyone who doesn't sound like Lou Reed.
typical incestuous Drag City fashion, it seems like the label's entire
roster shows up somewhere or other. Will Oldham, Azita Youssefi and
other random players are all credited. Most notable is occasional Silver
Jew Stephen Malkmus (Pavement's real first album was Westing by Musket and Sextant,
a set of singles and EPs released on Drag City) on guitar. His
presence, had I not mentioned it, would still have been obvious to
anyone who's heard a Pavement or Malkmus album. It's particularly
obvious on "K-Hole" and as a solid accompaniment to Berman's imagery in
"The Poor, The Fair and the Good": "The river winds through these
little green hills and stays in the wood for days."
however, is clearly in charge of it all. His lazy drawl and word play
are the centerpieces of "I'm Getting Back into Getting Back into You,"
which is as breezy as the Jews get, and "The Farmer's Hotel" features a
decidedly terrestrial first half and decidedly surreal back end.
of the Silver Jews' intrigue is that Berman isn't as tough a dude to
figure out as it would seem for a guy with one of the most significant
beards in folk (still a distant second to labelmate Will Oldham - check
out the backside photo of Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Hits), with a band that Jandek has out-toured by a multiple of infinity, and who intentionally overdosed two years ago.
you think that last line deserved a more prominent spot in the review,
I can assure you that incident is not even remotely visible on Tanglewood Numbers.
This is not a schmaltz-fest designed to run the same territory of every
other addiction story. The album only feels cathartic on "Sleeping is
the Only Love" ("Later I come to find life is sweeter than Jewish
wine") and in the insane pacing and desperation of closer "There Is a
Place." Berman "saw God's shadow on this world" just before taking a
hammer to the desert in his mind.
Drag City Web site: http://www.dragcity.com/
The Silver Jews on Drag City's Web site: www.dragcity.com/bands/silverjoos.html
The Silver Jews Web site: http://www.silverjews.net/
The Corduroy Suit, a Web site about the Silver Jews: www.weeblackskelf.co.uk/cordsuit/