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09.24.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Brent Stewart
Aleph Male : David Berman is back.

Tone Poems

The Silver Jews go all melodic on their newest album.

By Paul Davis


The phrase "writer-turned-musician" is as alarming a prospect as "Paris Hilton talks politics." Many offenders come to mind, most notably Stephen King, Dave Barry and Amy Tan's dismal 1993 music project, the Rock Bottom Remainders, which serves as a cautionary tale for any members of the literati who might be considering trading the laptop for the guitar.

Yet there's always an exception to the rule. A year after the Rock Bottom Remainders' inauspicious birth, the Silver Jews' David Berman emerged as that exception. Originally a poet by trade, Berman was coaxed to the stage by the slack-rock impresarios in Pavement, who served as his backup band for the first Silver Jews release, 1994's Starlite Walker. At the time, the Jews were written off as a curiosity for Pavement fans, an odd side-project featuring band's eccentric wordsmith buddy. But Berman was hooked, and in 1996 he issued the Pavement-free full-length The Natural Bridge, a stunning sophomore release that found Berman discovering form and choruses and turning out an album populated by songs first and foremost--not merely backing tracks to remaindered verse.

Seven albums later, the Silver Jews have become Berman's primary concern. The band has proven more venerable than Pavement, putting a lie to those who dismissed Berman early on. In the process, Berman's songwriting has slowly developed into wholesale mastery of the form. The band's primary draw has historically been Berman's skill at tossing out impossibly memorable lyrical punches. Berman is a master at the middle-school teacher's old saw of "show, don't tell," pinpointing his topics with stunning accuracy.

Berman's melodic gifts, on the other hand, have developed slowly yet steadily. On the band's most recent releases--2005's Tanglewood Numbers and this year's Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea--the music has become as punch-drunk as the words, unearthing Berman's Nashville roots in the service of country-rock with real hooks and soulful interludes.

Many critics and fans credit the addition of Berman's bass-playing, backup-singing wife, Cassie, to the Jews lineup for Berman's increased focus on making the tunes as memorable as his words. The soaring vocal counterpoint that Cassie offers to Berman's baritone has greatly expanded the range the Silver Jews inhabit. On the tear-in-your-beer rambler "Suffering Jukebox," off Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, Cassie launches into a heartrending chorus that takes the band places they could never reach before with Berman's limited register. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea proves a worthy follow-up to the revelatory fan-favorite Tanglewood Numbers. If anything, it proves to be the Silver Jews' liveliest work to date. This comes as a surprise--coming off Berman's failed suicide attempt and subsequent time in rehab, it was a good bet the new record would be a probing, internal affair. Instead, Berman seems reborn post-recovery, reveling in a playfulness and humor that lay mostly dormant on previous albums. On the charmingly ridiculous "Party Barge" and the Dylan-esque story-song "San Francisco, B.C.," you can almost see the shit-eating grin on Berman's face as he tosses out lines like "romance is the douche of the bourgeoisie" and "chicken fried pigeon in a Sonny James sauce, Satan's jeweled lobster has your wife in its claws ... nothing stops a party barge."

Fortunately, Berman has survived and become an elder indie rock statesman, a role he inhabits on the wry "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat." In the song, Berman asks, "What's with all these handsome grandsons in these rock-band magazines? What have they done with the fat ones, the bald and the goateed," drawing a contrast between the current fashion-obsessed indie scene with the dowdy cool of the genre's underachieving, Pavement-scored salad days. While Berman can remember a time when hipsters looked more Comic Book Guy than Project Runway, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea finds him relishing his bandleader role with an enthusiasm that belies his 41 years. It may be a predictable narrative, the suicide survivor who is reborn. But true to idiosyncratic form, it's a narrative that Berman revisits with a verve that is uniquely his own.


THE SILVER JEWS play Saturday, Sept. 27, at the Festival in the Forest at Fernwood Resort, 47200 Hwy. 1, Big Sur. The festival starts at 4pm Friday and noon on Saturday. Also appearing are Santa Cruz locals Sleepy Sun, Port O'Brien and Little Wings. Limited day-of tickets ($30 Fri, $35 Sat) available with Santa Cruz or Monterey county ID; www.folkyeah.com.


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