It's a rather neat coincidence that today marks the release of the new Silver Jews album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, for this past week Dan Osborn has been hard at work creating the packaging and menus for the Silver Jew DVD, which Drag City is releasing on September 23rd. I couldn't be happier with the cover artwork and the elements. I can't wait for everyone to see (and buy) it!
Until then, I highly recommend that you check out the new album, which becomes richer and more thoughtful upon repeat listens. Rather than try to express what makes it special, I've decided to post JT Songs's excellent review, which says it better than I ever could. Check it out, then buy the record!
Silver Jews' sixth album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, is a work of startling variety and originality, which should cause spikewaves on the EEGs of even the most spiritually comatose and world-weary. In just over thirty-three minutes, David Berman and his band of Nashville gunslingers have served up a fascinating mix of country, indie, rock and--believe it or not--salsa music, all set to the densely woven lyrics of DCB.
How do they do it? The answer, I feel, lies in two words: Density and Distillation. Having delivered a strong track, Berman doesn't sit around to pat himself on the back while drifting through mediocrity until the next moment of inspiration. In fact, each and every line in each song has been condensed down to a refined level that delivers an affect of richness and depth so rare in contemporary music. So although you may have listened to only four verses and a three-minute song, the effect of the same is much greater. This approach is helped by Berman's vast reading and learning, but still relies as heavily on original expression as it does on ability to cohesively interweave such a broad range of influences as Jewish scripture, Emily Dickinson, and Nashville country music. In short, Berman's lyrics and Silver Jews' music is the triple distilled whiskey, the Gran Reserva, the espresso of modern songwriting: blissful and intense, yet never bloating.
"What Is Not But Could Be If" is a strong opener, reminiscent of the exploration of a turn of phrase in Berman's poetry. Reverb on guitar and vocals recalls the spookier side of The Natural Bridge, but Berman's delivery is even more assured now and this one reads and sounds like a psalm or the Jewish equivalent thereof. This is followed by one of the most striking SJ songs to date, "Aloysius Was a Bluegrass Drummer," a raucous, rapturous tale of a dishwashing poet and his lard-addicted lover which, despite clocking in at just under two minutes, succeeds in combining a rich and often hilarious narrative with salsa breakdowns that would suggest Nashville has been infiltrated by Cuban indie-militants.
A highlight of the album is Cassie Berman's singing. While her individual twang added an unusual dimension on previous recordings, this time around the recording has captured better the timbre in her voice and her vocal on "Suffering Jukebox," which is prominent in the structure of the song, is assured and soothing and reminiscent of roots country singing at its finest. The lyric itself effervesces with typical Berman originality, recounting the woes of "a sad machine, all filled up with what other people mean," in the wryly funny but no-less melancholic tone Berman is expert at creating. This, combined with the starlight-country feel, makes you realize just how close Berman and the classic country songwriters are in some ways, and follows in the lineage of "Honk if You're Lonely" and Bright Flight's cover of "Friday Night Fever." The song also boasts arguably the finest turn of phrase on the album--"you've got Tennessean tendencies and chemical dependencies"--which shows Berman has lost none of his playfulness and ability to make you laugh out loud.
DCB then takes back towards the abyss with "The Pillow is The Threshold," an exploration of the importance of dreaming as a sort of nurturing for the subconscious. Though stark lyrically and musically, it concludes with the determined and reconciled stance of "Now I'm here for good, I'm not leaving any more." This track underlines Berman's continued development in the field of entwining his intricate lyrics into the music; in this sense, it's a more refined version of an earlier track such as "The Frontier Index."
"Strange Victory, Strange Defeat" derives it's name from no less than three books and one film, and although it consists of only a handful of relatively short verses is full of killer one-liners such as "squirrels imported from Connecticut, just in time for fall" and "What's with all the handsome grandsons in these rock band magazines?." There's an almost triumphant tone here as Berman celebrates having "come out of the black patch," as the band brims with energy and fervor. It's followed by another short track, "Open Field," a cover of a Maher Shalal Hash Baz song, which continues the upbeat and joyous musical tone, with Cassie lending further pretty harmonies to the proceedings.
"San Francisco BC" is the tale of a calamitous love affair in San Fran, doomed to failure by fate and filled to the brim with occasionally hilarious one-liners and couplets such as:
"since her dad a local barber had been beaten to death
she had become a vocal martyr of the vegan press"
The band is again buoyant and brimming with ideas and there is the feeling that through considering the idea of Silver Jews as a live entity, Berman has given many of the songs a new surge of dynamic energy which first showed up on Tanglewood Numbers following the more strictly-studio feel of previous albums. The tone of playfulness and surrealism continues through "Candy Jail" and "Party Barge," the latter being garnished by Cassie's riotous straight-faced repeating of "send us your co-ordinates, we'll send a St. Bernard" over the closing bars.
The album concludes with "We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing," which Berman has described as "a sort of urban-country love song." Again, though there is humor in the lyrics, there is pathos present as two lovers reconcile themselves with imperfection and an adieu to true romance, finding refuge in the practicality of company and kindness. As Berman said himself, his lyrics or approach to his art would "never feature such a cop out," but this an older wiser Berman who seems to be using the song to express his understanding of certain compromises in a flawed world. The angry and misdirected narrator of "Time Will Break the World" and "Horseleg Swastikas" has been replaced by a fun-loving rabbi who seems intent on entertaining and guiding us with wit and wisdom. Berman spoke not long ago in an interview about growing old to sit around a large table of grandchildren to tell them stories. Let's hope that for many years to come we continue to be treated to the same delights by a writer and recording artist of singular vision and originality. -- John Tully