Back in the early ’90s, shortly before the concept of being a “slacker” captured the wider imagination of the mainstream, three university-educated young men shared an apartment in New Jersey, paid the bills by working as security guards and spent their spare time pouring bent lyrics and guitar noise into a four-track recorder. While Bob Nastanovich and Steve Malkmus went on to genre- and era-defining success with Pavement, they also devoted time to working with their friend, poet David Berman, creating records credited to the Silver Jews.
Berman’s helpers hide behind pseudonyms like Hazel Figurine and Spill Fantauzza on the group’s debut, the 7-inch EP Dime Map of the Reef, but there’s no mistaking idiosyncratic eruptions like the accidental- recordist “Canada” and the post-Highway 61 travelogue “SVM f.t. Troops.” However, for all the noise and determined lo-fi aesthetic, the EP presents only cursory evidence that there might be a great songwriter lurking behind the squall.
Berman takes the reins a little more willingly on The Arizona Record, imparting a slightly dazed, Neil Young feel to ambling songs like “Secret Knowledge of Backroads.” Far too often, however, the band seems more concerned with medium than message; the audio vérité tenacity applied to the utterly atonal tangle “I Love the Rights” and the echo-drowned “The War in Apartment 1812” does little to enhance what might have been reasonably persuasive songs.
Starlite Walker is an altogether different beast. Not only does it maintain cogent form from one end to the other, it demonstrates a concern with previously secondary matters like sequencing. The opener, deftly titled “Introduction II,” addresses the Jews’ audience with the honest-to-1974 salutation “Hello my friends / Come on, have a seat,” and progresses unambiguously forward. Berman dispenses with the low-tech crutches, extracting his agreeably twangy voice from the lower reaches of the mix, which reveals an ability to write memorable parables like “Advice to the Graduate” (which counsels its subject “on the last day of your life, don’t forget to die”). While it gets laid-back enough at times to pass for a long-lost New Riders of the Purple Sage album, Starlite Walker possesses enough temperate charm to soothe even the most savage discordophile.
With Nastanovich and Malkmus busy at their day jobs, Berman assembled a new band for The Natural Bridge, an album which proves that if you remove the surface noise and willful obscurity from a Silver Jews record, you get something pretty close to country rock. Produced by Drag City’s Rian Murphy, the album employs spare, cleaned-up arrangements in order to give as much room as possible to Berman’s lyrical flights and deadpan delivery. While the words are great — wry, thought-provoking descriptions and off-kilter scenarios — much of the music lacks the same shambolic spark.
American Water introduces another new lineup, this one with Malkmus on lead guitar. Produced by Nicolas Vernhes (David Grubbs, Ted Leo), it’s a low-key masterpiece which pits Berman’s cynical observations and lucid nonsequiturs against a loose rumble of sunbaked slack country. Opening with the promisingly arrogant line “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” the album sets out on a ragged tour of suburban wilderness peppered with startling moments of clarity. Although highlights include the wah-powered “People” and “Send in the Clouds,” the full impact of American Water demands a beginning-to-end listen. The accumulation of moments and details, from the nearly ironic C&W of “Honk If You’re Lonely” to Berman’s own sly acknowledgement of his chosen vocal style in “We Are Real” (where he deadpans “like a message broadcast on an overpass / all my favorite singers couldn’t sing”), makes American Water the most engaging and rewarding album in the Silver Jews’ canon.
The Jews, who have never performed in public, nevertheless followed American Water with a so- called “live” 7-inch containing “The Walnut Falcon” and a truly dreadful take on the Stones’ “Cocksucker Blues.” Around the same time, Open City published Actual Air, a book of Berman’s poems.
Recorded in Berman’s adopted hometown of Nashville with a band featuring American Water bassist Mike Fellows, pianist Tony Crow of Lambchop and pedal-steel player Paul Niehaus (Lambchop, Calexico), Bright Flight is permeated by the spirit of country music. While generally quieter and more introspective than its predecessors, Bright Flight does offer some of Berman’s most naked lyrical flourishes. He can catch you off guard with a clever line like “punk rock died when the first kid said / punk’s not dead” and sound wholly convincing pleading for a lover join him in Tennessee — all within a single song. The album is not, on the whole, as agreeably encompassing as American Water, it is the work of an artist increasingly able to get to the emotional heart of a song without relying on the crutches of irony and overt cleverness.
Four years elapsed before work began on a follow-up. In 2005, Berman entered a Nashville studio with Malkmus, Nastanovich, Tony Crow, Mike Fellows, partner Cassie Berman and a host of guest stars. The album nearly met an untimely end in a fire, but the master tapes survived, and Tanglewood Numbers was the result. What may be the most confident and cohesive Silver Jews album yet is shot through with urgency and gravitas, but tempered, of course, with liberal doses of dark humor. Retaining the country elements from its predecessor, Berman injects a lively shot of rock and roll, littering the record with memorable tunes, from the surprisingly upbeat “Sometime a Pony Gets Depressed” to the meandering travelogue of “The Farmer’s Hotel.” And in the coda of “There Is a Place,” as Berman recites the line “I saw God’s shadow on this world” with increasing ferocity, the Jews arrive at a moment of undeniable poignance and transcendence.
In 2006, the Silver Jews embarked on their first ever tour, playing a handful of well-received shows in America and Britain.