Do Punknews readers know the Silver Jews? Maybe some of you don’t, and I didn’t either until a couple years ago. Well, how ‘bout Pavement? I hate to make the name-drop since ‘the Joos’ have been making great albums for nearly 20 years -- since before Pavement -- and create outstanding music on their own, with or without two of their founding members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich.
Truth is, David Berman is the mastermind steering this ship, and the Silver Jews’ sound has not varied a great deal in their long tenure due to Berman’s specific vision and near control-freak nature. When Berman moved to Nashville, the songwriting gave in even more to their country leanings, but their last effort Tanglewood Numbers took to more powerful rock-peppered feels and an even more depressing lyrical tone, likely a result of the hard times the songwriter had just made it through (including recovering from substance abuse as well an untreated eye injury that eventually required a cornea transplant). The frontman seems to be doing much better now and has also taken to life on the road, after the band spent most of its existence as a studio group. After the dour intro of “What Was Not But Could Be If” featuring Berman’s unique baritone, the full band enters to pop it up and introduce the new mindset of the Silver Jews: cautious hope.
Apparently, over 30 backing members have contributed to Jews records, so Berman must relinquish a little control as their sounds creep in, most notably with Malkmus and Berman’s wife Cassie. Malkmus is absent this time around so we don’t get his wiggly more-indie-less-country guitar lines, but Cassie plays a big role, now playing bass and taking many lead vocals and even more backups. Her showcase is “Suffering Jukebox,” where she takes lead vocals (and harmonizes herself) in the lengthy choruses. While she seems to struggle as she bends up to the high notes, her sweet everywoman voice fits the dark country vibe perfectly. “Open Field” (a cover by some Japanese composer named Tori Kudo) is simple lyrically but captivates thanks to Cassie’s layered vocals echoing her husband, holding ghostly long notes and chirping out some high bits as well.
Berman is a master of dark comedy, spinning characters' sad tales while giving us a few chuckles along the way. Opening up 1998’s American Water was the classic line "In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection" and Tanglewood informed us that “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed.” Lookout Mountain is a bit more subdued on the humor end, but not lacking completely as shown on the album’s later half with the near-obnoxious seagull and ship horn sound effects on “Party Barge” and the silly over-extended metaphors (for I’m-not-sure-what) in the Caribbean-tinged “Candy Jail.”
A charging saloon piano-driven tune, “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” shows Berman’s ability to tell captivating stories in a short time, a skill where he ranks up with my favorites John Darnielle and Craig Finn. But over a simple chord progression, Berman allows himself ample time to tell the tale of a murdered barber on “San Francisco B.C.,” the album’s standout. Once again, humor still shines through as the protagonist discovers the murderer is his partner in a jewel heist just completed: "Gene took off his hat and I noticed his hair / It was neatly trimmed but a patch was bare / I knew it wasn’t New Wave – it was human error!" and to start the next section: "Before I knew what I’d said, I said, 'Killer cut.'" An instant classic. I won’t spoil the end to this story, though.
Another standout would be “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat,” with its prevalent chiming keyboard effects, more Cassie backups and a strong simple chorus reciting the title. The album closes with its prettiest husband-and-wife duet, “We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing.” On the other hand, “My Pillow Is the Threshold” disappears into the background as another midtempo tune without a lot to distinguish it other than containing the title lyric and some noisier moments. Not a bad tune, though. Not a bad tune on the album for that matter.
While years down the line it may not stand out as the highest point in their discography, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is another solid addition to the Silver Jews’ catalogue. An added bonus, Berman has let you all in on the songs’ chord progressions so you can play along, as well as a chart in case you forgot that pesky B minor 7th chord. This album wouldn’t be a bad choice for a new fan either, containing one of the most consistently solid sets they have produced. Get to know the Silver Jews, people!