J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Silver Jews - Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City - 2005):

There's something terribly comfortable about an old friend. Something about hearing the same cadances, the same jokes, the same phrases from a time past. Something very lulling about the serenity of that kind of situation. The same thing can be said for a band you've known for a long time. Dan Berman is one of those songwriters. And now, 13 years into the rotating-cast of characters known as the Silver Jews, that familiarity sounds better than ever.

Tanglewood Numbers is no great departure from the traditional Jews' sound. But it's enough. Listening to a Silver Jews record still sounds like everything you ever loved about 90s indie-rock and then some. It doesn't hurt that original-Jew Stephen Malkmus has returned for this album. (And if there was ever anyone to be named as an archetect of that 90s sound, it's Malkmus.) But what has slowly been proven over the past decade is that this is not, as the early reference to the Jews as a Pavement side-project would have suggested, Malkmus' show. Malkmus does not a great Silver Jews record make. Arguments can be made that the ones featuring him (American Water in particular) are the cream of the crop, but the non-Malkmus records are just as invigorating.

Berman's songwriting is hard to pin down. It's wistful and resigned, fervent and impassioned, surreal and matter-of-fact. "Punks in the Beerlight" leads off the album with that wistful and impassioned feeling. "If we'd known what it'd take to get here," Berman ponders, "would we have chosen to?" But closes the song with the embarassingly candid (and surprisingly quirkily-moving) confession: "I always loved you to the max!" Indeed. It goes on from there.

"Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed" gives us something we don't always hear in Berman's voice: real energy. The emphasized chorus repetition of the song title is envigorating and gives the song a nervous and pounding energy that is ably backed by the music underneath. There's sharp, forward statements all over this record. "How can I love you if you won't lie down?" "I'd crawl over fifty yards of burning coals just to make it with you." There's not much room for subtlty.

Finally, there are the two things about this album that make it a real standout: it's compact (10 songs at somewhere in the 30 minute range) and it's of a piece. While certain songs stand out as exceptional, they don't stand out because they're out of sync with the rest of the album. In a day where records are too long and too sloppy and out of focus, Tanglewood Numbers is a classicist's dream album.

There's nothing jaw dropping about the Silver Jews' body of work, but there is something very smart and engaging about it. Berman's songwriting is often touchingly honest and cutting. The album ends with a bracing chant of the phrase "I saw God's shadow on this world" and as the album comes to a close, it wouldn't be out of line to say that's not far from the truth. Not as long as there are songwriters like Dan Berman painting us pictures of the shade.


  • At 9:53 PM, October 19, 2005, Blogger brynn said…

    When did you get so into the Silver Jews??? I adore them.

  • At 7:38 AM, October 20, 2005, Blogger Josh said…

    Jeremy Fischer had a copy of American Water my freshman yaer at Guilford and we used to play "Smith and Jones Forever" on our show all the time. But I just let them simmer for a good long while and this album renewed my attention.

  • At 9:06 AM, March 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It's David, not Dan Berman.


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