Silver Jews – [Album]

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Didn’t David Berman’s laconic on-the-lam storytelling match so well with Stephen Malkmus’ blazing guitarwork? Their dubious pairing made American Water one of the premiere on-the-road albums of not just the ‘90s but maybe all-time. After that musical landmark, Berman’s mainstay project has seen its fair share of artists arrive on the horizon and leave in the morning. The Jews’ revolving door lineup didn’t seem to help perfectly able but ultimately disappointing recent albums like Tanglewood Numbers and Bright Flight. Despite the new faces and small tweaks of instrumentation the band’s formula seemed to be stuck in a happy aesthetic limbo. You can liken it to the familiar album cover art motif that Berman has clung to over the years. Instead of that paunchy typeface in the upper left corner bringing a smile to your face you started to just shrug it off as just another Silver Jews album.

It’s with that storied background that we arrive at Silver Jews’ sixth album in about 14 years. You can’t call it a return to form, because American Water never sounded so playful with its country and indie rock conflations. Berman is known for his idiosyncratic voice, but he’s never crafted songs that are so overflowing in their levity. His tremulous baritone crams enough gravitas into the jelly doughnut lockup adventure “Candy Jail” that its ridiculous nature doesn’t come off as such. After some gooey warm tropical percussion and his wife singing wafting harmonies Berman sings one of the best lines on the album, “jelly beans and cookie dough / country restroom on the radio / I’ve got a number on my name / it’s hard to rise above the shame / I’m a branded man made in the mold.”

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is an enticing adventure for fans of quick turns of phrase like “country restroom.” Later on Berman sings about a troubled man and his “Party Barge.” Over sampled fog horn and sea gulls he sings the song’s sad and comic premise, “father drove a steamroller / momma was a crossing guard / she got rolled when he got steamed / and I got left in charge….I chopped down a weeping willow tree and built this party barge.” Berman’s droll singing about humorous stories seems to be channeling Johnny Cash’s early career.

Maybe his wife Cassie stepping up to her prominent position behind the mic during the liturgical organ “Suffering Jukebox” is the Silver Jews’ own shaky version of June Carter. Her ethereal backup vocals on the pastoral “Open Field” wipe away the niggling feeling you get when her voice’s limited range spills over the edges of her vocal lines on some tracks.

On “My Pillow Is The Threshold,” Berman explores the “Tennessee tendencies” that he sings about on the blazing parlor piano “Aloyisius, Bluegrass Drummer.” The ironic fact that bluegrass bands don’t really have drummers adds to the song’s lighthearted disposition. You can fault Lookout Mountain in that respect but songs like “My Pillow Is The Threshold” retain some of the emotional force of American Water. “San Francisco B.C.” is a brisk and rolling country rocker about a cluster of denizens that live in the titular metropolis. The protagonist gets into some “fist cuisine” after a mislaid compliment about a haircut that “wasn’t new wave, it was human error”. The disaster-prone young couples with lofty principles eventually break up—leading to one of Berman’s best turn of phrases on the album—“she went her way and I went his.”

The album is littered with sordid tales and lighthearted lyrics that make you forget some of the tedium of recent Silver Jews. Berman sums Lookout’s modus operandi best on “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat.” It's as though he's staring out from his Tennessee home, purveying the state of the indie rock union that he helped birth. He asks, “what’s with all the handsome grandsons in these rock band magazines? / And what have they done with the fat ones, the bald and the goateed?” You can argue to the high hills that the co-opted version of indie rock is ruining the genre, but Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea cements Silver Jews’ staying power. Plus, how can you argue with a song about a candy jail?

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is out June 17th. Buy it on Amazon.

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