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Tangled Up in Jews
Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers
Drag City, 2005
Tanglewood Numbers is the album where Silver Jews mainstay David
Berman invited insider fans of his work to join him for a recording party.
Aside from every-other-album-member Stephen Malkmus and original drummer Bob
Nastanovich, the fifth album by Berman under the Jews nom de rock
features the likes of Will Oldham and players from The Jesus Lizard and
Lambchop. This invariably makes for the fullest sounding record in the
band’s catalog. Berman’s vocals (the key reason to listen to a Jews record)
have been pushed back in the mix, more tightly integrated with the primarily
guitar-driven instrumentation. Also, Berman’s spouse, Cassie, retains her
second-vocalist status from 2001’s
Bright Flight --
leaving Malkmus (Berman’s usual second singing banana) to focus on some
impressive guitar solos.
But people don’t dig the Silver Jews for inspiring guitar work. It’s all
about the words, and those cool Bermanisms that keep the (admittedly
cultish) fan base coming back for more. Sadly, Tanglewood Numbers
just doesn’t sport enough memorable Bermanisms to make it a truly satisfying
Silver Jews album.
When Berman sings “Let’s not kid ourselves / It gets really, really bad”
from the fiery, bloodshot-eyed opener “Punks in the Beerlight,” he could
just as well be talking about the songs to come as introducing a tale of
drug dependency, suicidal depression and possible redemption via true love.
And perhaps there’s a metaphor about putting the pieces of one’s life back
together buried in lines like “Where does an animal sleep when the ground is
wet?” from the frenzied “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed.” But the words are
steamrolled by guitar histrionics, thus dampening whatever deeper point
Berman is trying to get across.
When we can hear the acclaimed poet speak, we’re stuck with clunkers
like “I’d rather live in a trashcan / Than see you happy with another man,”
from the unfocused “K-Hole,” or “With no bonhomie, he proffered the key,”
from the seven-minute long “The Farmer's Hotel” (which is sort of like
Berman’s "Hotel California," only without the great hook and dramatic
finale). Those hoping for another “Pet Politics” or “Secret Knowledge of
Backroads” had best content themselves with prior Silver Jews records. Yes,
Tanglewood Numbers is the most musically accomplished album in the
band’s catalog, but 1998's American Water rocked as well, and still
offered a surfeit of idiosyncratically beguiling lyrics.
The closing “There is a Place” is the great revelation. Closing with the
arresting chant “I saw God’s shadow on this world” -- it’s possible to hear
the power Berman’s capable of generating when he serves up a standout line.
Alas, it's over far too soon.
Possible clues as to where Berman’s muse might take him next can be heard on
duets with Cassie, specifically the countrified numbers, “Animal Shapes” and
“The Poor, The Fair and The Good.” Indie rock’s loss may indeed by Music
City’s gain; both offer an airy, homespun simplicity that may not knock your
intellectual socks off but easily gets by on genuineness and charm.
Tanglewood Numbers may signal the death knell of David Berman, Poet
with a Backing Band, and usher in David Berman, Respected Lyricist Who Can
Get Some Really Talented People To Record With Him Every Half-Decade or So.
If it keeps him firmly lashed to the wagon and healthy, well, that’s a fair
trade-off. Let’s just hope those earlier releases don’t go out of print
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