Silver Jews

[24 March 2006]

By Mike Powell

David Berman stood on the modest stage at Charlottesville, Virginia’s Satellite Ballroom, adjusted a music stand holding a binder full of his own lyrics and said “You all probably know these words better than I do.”

Well, yeah: Silver Jews has been recording for over a decade, but up until a couple weeks ago, you could’ve counted their live performances on a pair of severely injured hands. We’ve had time to learn these things.

When 1998’s American Water came out, the band’s territory was easy to place on the indie rock map: they were wry, quietly self-deprecating English majors staking out classic and country rock with a slack love that some sadly mistook for irony. Silver Jews, much like their more famous sister band Pavement, could’ve been a placeholder for anything between Lambchop’s alt-country noir and Silkworm’s post- Hüsker Dü/neo-meat and potatoes shtick. Of course, the people who packed the shows I went to in Charlottesville and at New York City’s Webster Hall always knew that Berman’s projections of burnt Americana were infinitely more special (no offense, Lambchop or Silkworm).

In 2006, it might be safe to say that Silver Jews have transitioned from a group of fringe indie-rock sad-sacks to a legitimate cult act. In a sense, Berman (the main force behind the band) is akin to Office Space or The Big Lebowski or organized religion: the people that love him really believe his words. Whether Silver Jews are “any good” or not is in some ways beside the point.

Silver Jews
multiple songs: MySpace

Let’s resuscitate abused clichés: “tear in your beer” wouldn’t be a half-bad phrase if idiots weren’t always misusing it. Anyone that has actually had the dubious pleasure of welling up at a barstool knows that dips into melancholic reverie usually snap back into an acute, bittersweet reality, that for all your “aww shucks”-ness, you’ve got some surrealistic murk to tread through. Nobody does this better than Berman, who splits the distance between deep metaphor (“Chalk lines around my body like shorelines of a lake”) with startlingly no-bullshit observations (“Well I wish they wouldn’t put mirrors behind the bar / Because I can’t stand to look at my face when I don’t know where you are”).

Berman’s lyrical prowess made a lot of the ramshackle indie-country on Silver Jews albums sound like an afterthought, or at best, a backdrop akin to the three chord lo-fi shredding of pre-Tallahassee Mountain Goats—it’s music that makes sense conceptually, but will always serve as an inert and indistinguishable stage to a star actor. So, admittedly, it was strange to hear the 2D economy of their albums with an unpredictably rich arrangement: two guitarists (and Berman’s, err, impressionistic rhythm playing), a keyboardist, two drummers (including former Pavement-er Bob Nastanovich) who actually helped keep Berman together rather than cheering on his reticent fragility, and Cassie, Berman’s wife, on bass.

Live, songs like “Trains Across the Sea” that once sounded scrappy were doused in blues, purples, phasers, and flangers, turned into big dream-pop/country pillows. Lushness and luster, but only for short moments, with Berman still stuck in the middle working his epigrams over with a creaky deadpan. The performances of “Smith & Jones Forever” finally outed the eerie hillbilly disco the song had always promised; Berman’s aside on the third night: “We tried to fit Steve Earle’s whole career into that song… don’t know if we did it or not.”

Whatever hard-rock winking “Punks in the Beerlight” did on Tanglewood Numbers was turned into full-on glare in performance: you finally felt like you were at a fuckin’ rock show, a feeling ambiguously supported by Webster Hall’s tech treatment of searing orange and red flashes.

In a sense, it was disorienting; there’s a confusion as to whether we were “supposed” to try to just focus on the lyrics (which seemed impossible) or whether we should’ve taken the rock ‘n’ roll route and let the Full Glory gestalt vibe wash over us. It’d be wrong to say that corners were brightened in the songs-there wasn’t anything lacking to gain, really-but it was certainly hard to protest how well the arrangements were in spirit-sync with the lyrics of the songs. Even if you tuned Berman out for a verse, something was there to tickle your heart in its place-the primacy of musical mood, a new entry in the band’s lexicon.

* * *

Silver Jews have never really had a home, but they ostensibly formed in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia, where Berman met Malkmus and Nastanovich. The trio moved to Hoboken in the late ‘80s, where Berman and Malkmus worked shifts at the Whitney Art Museum as security guards, occasionally recording songs on Sonic Youth’s answering machine in the evenings (no joke; these were the eventual beginning of their long out-of-print debut LP, The Arizona Record).

Getting to see them play in two of their three hometowns-David and Cassie’s current home in Nashville being the third-felt, simply speaking, special. I also went to UVa, so it was hard not to let my mottled love of Charlottesville color their performance, but it seemed like Berman was wrestling with his own blend of nostalgia and relief. The crowd was relaxed and thoroughly adulatory; at one point, Cassie said “I love how ya’ll are out there dancin’; David, can we move to Charlottesville if Nashville doesn’t work out?” Berman’s body shuddered and he looked away from his wife, gritting his teeth and tensing his neck like he had narrowly escaped certain doom or had eaten something really disgusting. “David?”

The first night in New York seemed a little rougher on them. While the band performed relatively unfazed, Berman was sudden and visibly uncomfortable; he didn’t say much, and I was painfully reminded that “Oh Yeah, this guy hasn’t ever really played in front of audiences before, and especially not the holler-and-heckle bigmouths that seem to haunt every show I go to in this city.”

It’s not a lack of love for New York, per se, but there was an ugly sense of entitlement in pockets of the audience that felt ominous, and it was one that really soured the end of the show-Berman was more or less forced to do a second encore, as his polite “Goodnight, we’ll see you tomorrow, thanks” was met with some unfortunate boos.

By the second night, he had warmed up; he smiled and the band seemed more comfortable in turn. It was the loosest of the three shows I saw. Still, he didn’t really indulge the crowd, mostly because he just seemed shy. If anything, Cassie was the mouthpiece for the band, punctuating her banter with big smiles that washed out her husband’s elliptical mumbling.

Given that this was the band’s first real tour in their decade-plus of existence, it’d be wrong to factor out the pure joy of hardcore fan that had been waiting for years to see them and never thought the day would come. Berman’s mere presence probably sent quakes through half the hall. Fans of the band know that he’s still getting over the worst stretch of his life, drug addictions so myriad and gonzo they seem like fantasy, and a crumbled attempt at suicide.

Still, the ripples of pain in Berman’s voice when he sang the lines “I don’t wanna look poor anymore” or “There is a place past the blues I never want to see again” were vivid enough to render his history coincidence. At the second Webster Hall show, he stood at his wife’s side, eyes bright with love, singing along to her song “The Poor, the Fair and the Good”, and didn’t give even half a glance to the lyric sheet.

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