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Silver Jews - Tanglewood Numbers

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Artist: Silver Jews

Album: Tanglewood Numbers

Label: Drag City

Review date: Oct. 16, 2005

Following a lengthy hiatus, David Berman has resurfaced with a new Silver Jews record and the requisite barrage of press interviews (including one for this site) that are distinct in their variety, candor, and wit per word. Berman answers even the most pat questions so archly, that where I used to imagine it taking him two or more years of careful chiseling to bring together 10 or 12 songs in the manner of American Water (1998) and Bright Flight (2001), you almost wonder if he isn’t sitting on a small mountain of brilliant castoffs. But then how to explain Tanglewood Numbers?

In one of these recent interviews, a writer asked Berman if he had any advice for his sister, who was soon to be graduating high school. This is actually consistent with the level of reverence typically accorded this guy; I felt almost guilty taking up space at an impromptu Silver Jews gig in March of last year, learning only afterward that they occurred about as often as blizzards hit Nashville. Berman’s reply was to quote Schopenhauer – “In this world, there is only a choice between loneliness and vulgarity” – and to specify that, for better or worse, he’d recently reversed directions in pursuit of the latter.

As an auto-critique of Berman’s fifth full-length record this is unduly harsh, though not altogether off mark. The best Silver Jews albums are endearingly lonely affairs – sparsely arranged, countrified songs about drunk, disfigured characters in absurd situations. Their peaks (“I Remember Me,” “Trains Across the Sea,” “Random Rules”) are those moments when the singer’s lazy, shaky voice moves nervously to the fore with sly and self-deprecating humor. Their valleys (“Time Will Break the World,” “Smith & Jones Forever”) consist of same-ish melodies motoring sluggishly through the dust kicked up by countless indie rock bands, burying clever lyrics beneath plodding paint-by-numbers guitar, bass and drums.

Tanglewood Numbers isn’t uniformly of the latter style, but the album presents itself that way, arriving frontloaded with its most bombastic, half-rollicking numbers. The first twenty seconds of “Punks in the Beerlight” consists solely of a lone sparkling shred of electric guitar tone – a promising, unexpected start – until the full-band arrangement kicks in with its booming drums, ponderous rhythm guitar, proggy synth counterpoints, and echo-chamber vocals. The song has the booming, reverb-fueled feel of '70s hard rock – neither bad nor good, really – but Berman’s phrases are uncharacteristically limp. (Rolling Stone bafflingly exclaims: “Berman has a gift for lyrics like "Punks in the beerlight, two burnouts in love / I always loved you to the max!"). I guess the "to the max!" cheer is sort of cute, but "Punks in the beerlight / Toulouse-Lautrec!" made me fearful of the remaining 30 minutes.

Things do improve somewhat; there are a few of the singer’s stoner koans ("Where does an animal sleep when the ground is wet?") and his typically slanted spin on the quotidian ("God must be carving the clouds into animal shapes"). But synth lines, guitar noodling, and masking effects consistently smother Berman's signature sing-speak drawl, which isn’t even recognizable until the third track (“K-Hole”). And only a few songs really foreground it over those Pavement-goes-Nashville arrangements of old (“Sleeping is the Only Love,” “The Farmer’s Hotel”). Berman seems to have willfully forgotten that "all (his) favorite singers couldn’t sing" – whether this amnesia is due to a desire for broader accessibility, a heightened self-consciousness, or some paradoxical combination of the two is difficult to say.

If another band were to serve up the fiddling strings and lollygagging vocal harmonies of “Animal Shapes,” the wanky guitar breakdowns of “The Poor, The Fair, and the Good,” perhaps Tanglewood Numbers wouldn’t feel like such a disappointment. But Berman’s a brilliant lyricist with 30 or 40 minutes to spare every couple of years, and his voice seems oddly absent from this record. In the end, disliking Tanglewood Numbers leaves me feeling a bit like one of the schlubs who groused about Dylan going electric. Like the millions who voted for Nixon a second time, most of those people have mysteriously disappeared, so I suppose it’s possible this record’s a grower. For the time being, that’s the best there is to say about it.

By Nathan Hogan

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