Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Won't soul music change / now that our souls have turned strange?

"Where's the paper bag that holds the liquor", David Berman asks as the first chords ring out on the Silver Jews' exceptional new album, Tanglewood Numbers, "Just in case I feel the need to puke".

It sounds like Berman, the man who once sang "In twenty seven years I've drunk fifty thousand beers / and they just wash against me like the sea against the pier" has spent the time since 2001's understated, surprising Bright Flight doing what we know he does best; drinking. Well, that and maintaining his reputation as America's best lyricist and one of her most under-appreciated song-writers. And erm, he tried to kill himself too, but didn't succeed, thank god.

"There is a place past the blues I never want to see again / Black planet, black freighter, black sea"

The beers continue to take their toll on Berman's voice; he's gruff, clipped and uncompromising here, often mixed low in the mix behind Steve Malkmus's astonishing guitar playing, which is revelatory after his absence on the Jews' last outing, where Berman, keen to break out of his bandmate's shadow, employed traditional country musicians to back him up. This time, with Malkmus and fellow Pavement travellers Stevie West and Bob Nastanovich back, as well as Will Oldham, the Jews return to the bustle and noise of American Water and make arguably the best Silver Jews record yet.

"Ain't ya heard the news? / Adam and Eve were Jews"

Benefiting from one of the best production jobs I've heard on a record in recent years (it really captures what I imagine the Jews would sound like if they ever played live, which they don't, apart from that one time that Berman and Malkmus showed up on stage, played a Grateful Dead cassette through the PA, and improvised on top of it), and a sterling contribution from new addition Cassie Berman - who takes over from SM on second vocal duties - the Silver Jews sound simultaneously frenzied, friendly, tired, and drunk. It's a record that makes you feel like a participant, and summons up an extraordinarily vivid mental picture.

"Where does an animal sleep when the ground is wet? / Cows in the ballroom, chickens in the farmer's corvette"

Like all Jews records, it's an album that works on two distinct levels. It's a record packed with mournful and beligerant melodies and beautiful sounds, perfect for a late night beer before bed beckons, and it's also, of course, a headphones record, preferably with a lyric sheet to hand, as Berman throws a predictably gorgeous set of words over his shoulder into the mellee.

A beautiful record the match of anything else you'll hear this year. Or next. Apparently this might be Berman's last record, but we'll have to hope that's not true. If it is, he's bowed out with a classic.


Blogger Ben said...

Never heard the Silver Jews, but I've read very good things about American Water. A band to investigate, I think...

3:53 pm  

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