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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers

What originally began as a fascination with a band name -- being a quasi-Jew myself -- has developed into so much more. It began when I was searching for torrents and I found one for this album in August. Seeing the band name flickered a memory of a track being reviewed on Pitchfork; that track ended up being entered into Track-fu. (It didn't win, and that is a shame.) After a few listens it was obvious to me that I had to own the album. Only then did I realize I had somehow found a leak for it nearly two full months before the actual release date.

I must have heard that album 20 times before I ever had a chance to own it. The Silver Jews are a quaint little band. A handful of musicians show up throughout, including the extremely talented Stephen Malkmus, but for the most part the band is a husband-and-wife duo of Dave and Cassie Berman.

They don't tour at all, having only played a handful of lives shows in spite of a career spanning six albums and more than ten years. They don't shoot videos. They just record music and get it out and let the rest work itself out. And even though this has to be the worst marketing technique ever, it does work itself out for one reason, and one reason alone: they make fucking good music.

Four years have passed since the last album was released, and during that time Dave Berman attempted to commit suicide. That's something that no matter how hard you try to find out about it, you can't really get many details. All you can find out is that Berman is doing better now and doesn't really want to talk about it. "Tanglewood Numbers" sounds like someone who is doing better. It has a dry humour about it, and some optimism if you search for it. It isn't the type of album you might expect from someone who has been through what he has, although it might also be. If he really is doing better, like he says he is, maybe it is exactly the type of album to expect. The music kind of reminds me of a far more grungey, folkified version of R.E.M. from back when they were actually pretty good. The most popular comparison you'll find online is to Bob Dylan, which is an even loftier comparison, one that isn't, and shouldn't be, bandied around lightly.

The album commences with the impeccable "Punks In The Beerlight," a spirited, tongue-in-cheek folky rock/punk song that is highly addictive. The song is a playful anthem for burnouts in love who are constantly re-assuring the other how much they love the other but meanwhile are talking about their addictions and the massive problems that they encounter on a regular basis. As dark as the topic is, if you don't pay attention you'll just find yourself gleefully bobbing your head and enjoying the moment because this song has high leechability. My favourite part has to be the repeated times when Berman chants out "I love you to the max, I love you to the max." The vocals play back and forth off Bermand and his wife Cassie at times. This is the hardest rocking song on "Tanglewood Numbers" and probably the only one with any commercial potential (not that they care). I'll break the suspense, there is no way this won't have a prominent spot on my year end CD. It is probably in my top five songs overall for the year.

"Animal Shapes" opens with some awesome fiddle and cracking drumsticks, and breaks down into a full-on hoedown jig-style countrified jangle. Cassie and Dave again split the vocals up, singing simultaneously, one with the soprano and the other with the falsetto. The combination is very pleasing. You could put this song on an album for kids and I guarantee they would love it. It has that innocent playful quality to it, and yet it also totally appeals to a 24-year-music critic like me. I think the major difference is that I appreciate the intricacies in the background: the banjo, the strings, the twangy guitar (which is really low), and everything else going on here. A kid would just love the slightly hoakey but oh-so-loveable chorus "Animal Shapes, Animal Shapes, God must be carving the clouds into animal shapes."

Again it has to be said -- what I might love most about the Silver Jews is the dark humour or the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm that Dave Berman uses throughout the songs. "I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You" is a sad tale about a guy who has fallen onto some tough times and finds himself drifting back to an ex-girl of his. The song finds Berman morosely singing about wanting this girl back with the simple yet snazzy chorus "I'm getting back into, getting back, getting back into you." This is one of those albums you can't fully appeciate without getting to know the lyrics. Take this one for instance: "Now my ex-wife's living in the suburbs with her guru and her mom/Now she finds her consolation in the stardust of a bong/You can call it a spinoff, say it's a knockoff, title it part two/But i'm getting back into getting back into getting back into you." There are a lot more where that came from.

That dry wit is back at it again with "How Can I Love You If You Won't Lie Down." The song has less than 75 words and it doesn't matter; each word carries important significance. This song has a bit more playfulness and less of the dry Mark Lanegan style of the prior song. Cassie's role here is to whimsically echo the last word on Berman's sentences. This is a short song running just two minutes, but you will cherish every second. Imagine a band that is known as having a heavy jangle like Kings Of Leon, but remove all influences of rock, add in a heavy dose of folk and a side of extra talent, and that is the best way I can describe this tune. Gotta give you another lyric: "Fast cars/Fine ass/These things will pass/And it won't get more profound/Time is a game only children play well/How can I love you if you won't lie down?"

We finish with the end of the album and a gentler, more obviously emotional song, "This Is A Place." It finds Berman singing about the place past the blues that he never wants to see again, and also features an instrumental interlude over what is blacked out and referred to as a police conversation. This is basically the only time during the entire album that Berman even refers to the times he had when he almost took his own life. After the extended instrumental part Berman comes in with a refound vigour in the most rocking part of the album since "Punks In The Beerlight," breaking into a full on chant that goes like this:

I saw God's shadow on this world.
I saw God's shadow on this world.
I saw God's shadow on this world.

I could not love the world entire.
There grew a desert in my mind.
I took a hammer to it all
Like an insane medieval king

I saw God's shadow on this world.
I saw God's shadow on this world.
I saw God's shadow on this world.
I saw God's shadow on this world.

I could not love the world entire.
There grew a desert in my mind.
I took a hammer to it all.
I took a hammer to it all.

I saw God's shadow on this world.
I saw God's shadow on this world.
I saw God's shadow on this world.
I saw God's shadow on this world.

All the while it gains in intensity and in the speed of delivery. The album ends on that note, and hearing Berman sing what clearly most be uncomfortable for him leaves you with a powerful feeling. You always hear people complaining about angst or getting too involved in singing about relationships, but you will never hear people complain about lyrics like this. This is what songwriting is all about.

"Tanglewood Numbers" is an album that needs to be heard by more people. Not just the indie kids, or the music-obsessed fools like Ronan, Terri, Cameron, and myself (Brandon not a knock or anything but this just isn't close to Destroyer music and I respect that.) I urge you to find a way to experience it. I don't think I have heard better songwriting on any album I have had the pleasure to listen to in 2005. I've heard better albums perhaps, but the songwriting on this is almost unmatched. Do yourself a favour and find out for yourself.

Songs to download: Anything I mentioned sure and "Punks In The Beerlight" especially, but this truly deserves to be heard in its entirety. It will only cost you 34 minutes.

SCORE: 9.30 (Where will it end up ranking on the year end list? Well my friends, I already know that answer. You'll just have to wait and find out.)


At November 23, 2005 at 11:36 AM, Anonymous terri said...

Dan does indeed play this CD a lot. I haven't had a chance to listen to the whole album, but I always find myself bopping along to "Punks in the Beerlight."

At November 23, 2005 at 12:52 PM, Anonymous Steve said...

Listening to this I wish the album was more like the first and last songs then i might actually really like it.

At November 23, 2005 at 1:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey cool man i didn't know this was out. I also have the American Water album need to download this tonight after work.

At November 23, 2005 at 10:12 PM, Blogger Daysthatareover said...

See i know what your saying Steve and i imagine most people with your style of music would agree.

But for me, this album wouldn't be as great as it is if it consistently tried to rock out like it does on the first and last tracks.

At November 24, 2005 at 1:48 AM, Anonymous Laura said...

You know i had a mother fucker of a day today and tha tstretched into my evening.

This was just what the doctor ordered. I can't get Animal Shapes out of my head!:)

At November 25, 2005 at 8:08 PM, Anonymous the Destroyer said...

i remember you sent me a silver jews song before
i dont remember liking it
but i dont remember hating it
thanks weed
maybe send another so that I can re-evaluate them

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