Music

Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers

Josh Berquist

Drinking beer to review records to drink beer to.


Silver Jews

Tanglewood Numbers

Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2005-10-18
UK Release Date: 2005-10-10
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I oftentimes find myself peering into pints observing foam dissipate into still amber. What strikes me most about this process is that I cannot discern its aesthetic value. There is surely some appeal otherwise it would not prove so captivating. Yet my fondness for the sight is rarely shared so it may merely be beer lust. Admittedly my love of lager is such that any assessment stemming from or surrounding its consumption is surely biased beyond fairness. The whole display may not be attractive at all but I still find myself delighted by the sight of every bubble bursting.

It is this same quandary that grips me now as I consider Tanglewood Numbers. My fondness for Silver Jews rivals my lager love and the frequency with which both are intermingled further muddles any appraisal. Most immediately Tanglewood's surprising stridency struck me as impossibly beautiful and astonishingly inspiring. It was love at first listen and the stumbling onset of the album still unleashes a flood of joy. So zealous is my conviction in the grandeur of this record that it arouses skepticism. If I'm the lone punk in the beerlight fixated on foam, I may also be the only guy in the room who openly confesses that all my favorite singers couldn't sing.

Many aspects of the record are far from readily appreciable. Elemental Jew David Berman remains faithful to an aesthetic that rarely concedes to casual listeners. While these songs rock and rollick more straightforwardly than their predecessors, they still hover somewhere between country hayride and indie heyday. Unwilling to yield exclusive appeal to either genre, they run the risk of satisfying neither and alienating both.

Berman's voice has always been an acknowledged liability and age has not improved upon that shortcoming. That the stately balladry of Bright Flight which framed his unapologetically plain singing to a degree approaching conventional beauty has been sacrificed to raucous rockers that outpace his cadence and leave him straining only exacerbates the problem. It's endearing to those of us who fall for that kind of thing but others may not be able to get past it.

Of course substance has always held primacy over presentation for Silver Jews. David Berman isn't a singer-songwriter so much as he is a writer who sometimes sings. Deliberately considered and concise, his wordplay defines and distinguishes his art. His way with a loaded one-liner is unprecedented and his sense of humor unrivaled. Yet his is a casual genius that sometimes belies him with the appearance of veering from superficially funny to eye-rollingly obtuse. Tanglewood again offers little concession here as Berman comes up considerably shorter on lyrics and takes even greater liberties with the lines he lays down. The surreal imagery of Bright Flight is reigned in but replaced by overt over-simplifications and obvious rhymes. "Punks in the Beerlight" bemoans "it gets really, really bad" and "K-Hole" stoops so low as to state "I'd rather live in a trash can/ Than see you happy with another man". Contrasting with the consistency of earlier efforts, mere cleverness is allowed to suffice where meaning was once insisted upon.

For all these faults, this still may be the greatest chance Silver Jews have ever had of establishing themselves beyond their humble number of ardent fans. Even if it's not their finest work, it certainly feels like it is. There is a visceral vitality to Tanglewood Numbers that has never inhabited any album prior. Those records appealed to your head and heart, but this one goes straight for your ass and takes whatever else it can grab. While ballads like "I'm Getting Back into Getting Back Into You" and "Sleeping Is the Only Love" offer some respite in an otherwise unrelenting romp, even these songs burn with unaccustomed intensity.

This newfound energy obliterates many of those initial criticisms. Getting caught up in the searing orange soar of Fender fuzz burning through "Punks in the Beerlight" forces one to concede that sometimes things do indeed get really, really bad. Berman's impassioned delivery insures that the line elicits pumping fists instead of shaking heads. Sure, he can't quite keep up with the stomp of "Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed" but he attacks each line so forcefully it hardly matters. The immediacy and urgency in his voice is undeniable and irresistible.

Bolstering this blustery approach are some incredibly deft arrangements involving a cast of over a dozen contributors. Berman's wife Cassie appears most prominently offering a sublime contrast to her husband's gruffness. Getting downright soulful on "How Can I Love You (If You Won't Lie Down)", she almost upstages some of his finest lines with her winsome sass. Propulsive banjo livens up "Animal Shapes", "The Farmer's Hotel" gets enough spooky skronk and spectral reverb to keep an otherwise uninteresting narrative engaging, and "K-Hole" gets some spaced-out strings befitting its narcotic namesake. All of this makes for a fuller sound of incredible intricacy.

Even as it fails in ascending to the heights of prior records, these factors establish Tanglewood Numbers as a new level of success for Silver Jews. While Berman still gets in a far better than average amount of good lines, he can't match the literary density of his older work. Disappointing as this is, the album certainly doesn't sound like a failure. Instead it arrives so confident and fully formed that it seems to play by a whole different set of standards. Indeed, what Berman has done here is created a record that prizes feel over anything else. In doing so he deviates from his established formula and succeeds wildly with a triumphant rock record. And while I may not be able to convince any one else at the bar of the beautiful beer show going on in my pint glass, I can't imagine anyone arguing with any given track from this record coming up on the jukebox.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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