Silver Jews - Tanglewood Numbers

Berman has been through some kind of personal hell. To quote Kinky Friedman, he spent the time so high that he needed a stepladder to scratch his ass.

 

Silver Jews – Tanglewood Numbers

 

David Berman (who is the Silver Jews) should be far better known than he is. The reason for his relative anonymity lies with the fact that he has friends more famous than himself. So let's get this out of the way: ex-Pavement members Steve Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich are generally to be found playing on Silver Jews records. (This one also features Will Oldham). That Berman is so overshadowed by his band mates is a shame because the Silver Jews make consistently (if intermittently) great records. Berman has also penned the best opening lyrics to an album ever – 'In 1985 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection.' That was from 1998's American Water and gives an idea, I think, of Berman's dry and frequently mordant wit. On How Can I Love You If You Won't Lie Down he sings 'Fast cars / Fine ass / These things / Will pass / And it won't get / More profound.' But the album does get a good deal more profound - away from the music business Berman is a published poet and it is no surprise to find that he takes such care over the album's lyrics.

 

This album kicks off with the lines – "Where's the paper bag that holds the liquor? / Just in case I need to puke." Whilst the track Punks in the Beerlight doesn't have the cheeriest of openings it probably represents Berman's recent life pretty well. Prior to the recording of these songs (a period of a good few years) Berman has been through some kind of personal hell. To quote Kinky Friedman, he spent the time so high that he needed a stepladder to scratch his ass. This could have occasioned a change of musical direction for Berman but instead the album, like his earlier ones, could best be described as a slightly twisted country rock album.

 

Any differences in sound from his earlier work are slight then, but if anything this album is more amped up – the electric guitars are given more prominence and there are even 80s style keyboard flourishes. These initially seem out of place but they actually round the songs out very well. Sometimes A Pony Gets Depressed, the second track, has a honky tonk good-time rhythm and a great chorus. Fiddles and banjos fill in the gaps around the raucous guitars. Although the song's title may sound twee this is not a Devandra Banhart whimsy fest – it deals with real relationships but in a skewed and somewhat oblique fashion. After the woozily disorientating K-Hole we get the dreamy Animal Shapes. Berman croons along with his wife, Cassie, and the two of them give the track a gentle sing-a-long quality.

 

The fiddle and banjo, so dominant on Animal Shapes, fade into the background for I'm Getting Back into Getting Back into You. A typical Berman tale of small town loss and regret it showcases what he does best – it is a fragment from the life of the nameless and the hopeless that manages to be both melancholy and strangely uplifting at the same time. If Raymond Carver had written songs, they'd have sounded something like this.  Simple harmonies and understated keyboards give the track extra depth. The Poor, The Fair and the Good, written by Berman along with his wife, gives Malkmus the opportunity to make his patented edgy and angular guitar shapes. Once these are out of the way the song itself feels like a speeded up Smog track. Berman's voice is similar to Callahan's – deep and flat and resonant – though it has a bit more life in it than Bill's. The Farmer's Hotel, the penultimate song, also resembles a Smog track in style, if not in sound. It's a slow, drawn out tale of the narrator's need to find a place to stay and how he ends up at the aforementioned hotel.

 

But this hotel has a dark secret and the denouement is both terrible and funny. The rambling song might not be the catchiest on the album but it gives Berman the opportunity to show off his lyric-writing abilities. We then lurch from southern gothic to the apocalyptic with the final track, There is a Place. It starts off amiably enough but the lyrics preface the noise that is to come: "There is a place past the blues I never want to see again." Half way through the track the song lurches abruptly into an increasingly hysterical stomp and only stops when it can't get any faster. And that's your lot: the 10 songs flash past in just under thirty-five minutes. It may not scale the peaks of American Water but it is still another great album from David Berman. Human frailties are laid bare in songs of hope and loss. That these deceptively simple miniatures take time to reveal all their charms is just an added bonus.

 

Words: Chris Dawson.