Mary’s earlier post stands as less the lighting rod for further writin' on writers who make good tunes than a cosmic intersection of what good tunes we want to write about. I thus speak of David Berman and his band The Silver Jews: Browsing, five years ago, the new titles rack at Saint Marks Bookshop, I spied a book cover: two ultra modern glass towers, jauntily looming above a patch of dead yellow grass. The book’s title: Actual Air. The photo on the back cover seemed to be of a latter-day Confederate cavalry officer lunching at a bohemian café. Further inspection revealed that this bearded fellow had on a tee-shirt with a picture of a real Confederate cavalry officer. Hmmmm, I thought and, judging the book by its cover, bought it.

The first poem “Snow,” a meditation on storytelling and the origin of snow angels, contained these simple truths: The ice looked like a photograph of water and When it’s snowing, the outdoors seems like a room. Actual Air wound up being treasure trove of such gold nuggets, little bits of reality skewed just enough to make sense, homespun tales of the everyday illuminating the dark, deep down we all know is there. Really, even if you don’t read poems, especially if you don’t read poems, go get the book. Read the poem about the assignation of Lincoln as seen from the theater audience and about the younger brother who was missing that part of the brain / that allows you to make out with your pillow. I digress. From the biography, at the back of Actual Air, I first learned that David Berman, this poet whose poems I was devouring like nutritious candy, had a band. The Silver Jews.

The Silver Jews put out records on the esteemed Chicago indie Drag City; they’ve put out four full-lengths, plus some 7”s and eps, plus there’s another LP on the way (the studio burned down just days after recording finished). They rarely, if ever, play live. Like some other Drag City artists (Smog, Palace Music), The Silver Jews are a band that boils down to just one person, who writes the tunes and sings them, with a rotating cast of characters playing behind. In the case of The Jews, the characters are pretty darn cool. Turns out Berman is friend of Steve Malkmus from back before Pavement (they were museum security guards together), and starting with the first LP Starlite Walker, Malkmus, along with Bob “Nasty” Nastonovich, has lent a hand on every other Jews record. In a broad sense, the Jews are kinda lo-fi countryish,sorta folk-blues but with bolts of weirdness and darkness, unsurpassed storytelling and indelible images, Berman’s rangeless baritone telling the tale on each tune: Like a message broadcast on an overpass / All my favorite singers couldn’t sing. The records with Malkmus tend to have more developed songs, niftier guitar playing and a bit more experimental edge, whereas the Malkmus Jews records mine more exclusively the country diamonds and folk/blues silver. If that’s your thing, start with the most recent Jews effort Bright Flight; the standout track, “I Remember Me,” is a sad song of love lost to amnesia. If you want some country dirt piled on your Pavement, start with the most recent +Malkmus Jews record American Water, which begins with this couplet:

In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.
Slowly screwing my way across Europe, they had to make a correction.
Broken and smoking' where the infrared deer plunge in the digital snake.
I tell you, they make it so you can't shake hands when they make your hands shake.

Digression: Personally, I find much truth and soulfulness in the music my old country heroes: Hank, Johnny, Willie, Waylon et al, but this is a different time, and it’s not enough to just mimic or emulate, even if you have a lovely voice and red-blooded dobro player. If you want to take the country idiom, you’ve got to take it somewhere. Its inherent simplicity and beauty must be reconfigured to even begin to evoke the truth and soulfulness of the originators.

Further digression: I once wrote to Berman a modest letter of admiration and included a CD of our then-current music project, the Cold Memory LP Damage/No Damage. I relay his response from memory: “Dear Joe Willie Weissman, I don’t have a CD player but the record looks great and those are damn fine lyrics. Sincerely, David Berman”

Final digression: My favorite Jews lyrics, from “Black and Brown Blues” off of The Natural Bridge LP:
When there’s trouble I don’t like runnin'
But I’m afraid I’ve got more in common
With who I was than who I am becomin'.

Well said Mr. Berman. Well said.

P.S. There’s some Jews MP3s The Corduroy Suit.


Blogger d said...

I've been trying to find this silver jews' cover of "I heard it through the grapevine" with malk on lead vocals, more ccr than gaye. any idea where I can locate that?

12:17 PM, May 12, 2005  
Blogger Joe Willie said...

no,never heard it. trav does have a bootleg of malkmus and few others (no berman) doing a bunch of tunes from Dylan's Basement Tapes. I think they're called The Million Dollar Band.

On Bright Flight, they also do a sweet cover of George Strait's "Friday Night Fever."

12:45 PM, May 12, 2005  
Blogger d said...

I only have the first silver jews' cd, but it sounds like I definitely need to get my mits on bright flight.

1:03 PM, May 12, 2005  
Blogger mary said...

one time at school we were supposed to bring things in to poetry seminar and this one girl brought a silver jews cd.

she totally won.

1:11 PM, May 13, 2005  
Anonymous Travis said...

The above mentioned "I Heard IT Through The Grapevine" isn't the Jews but rather the Crust Brothers, a one off band featuring Malkums and the guys from Silkworm who issued one album only called "Marquee Mark." It is a live album from a benefit concert and feaures mostly covers of tunes form the Basment Tapes as well as the Stones' "Bitch," Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone" and, of course, "Grapevine." I've got a copy if anyone wants to jam it in their earholes.

12:59 PM, May 15, 2005  
Blogger d said...

re-he-he-ally? well, travis, I think you need to hook a sistah up. stat.

11:06 AM, May 16, 2005  

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