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Writer and poet (and occasional Baffler cartoonist) David C. Berman also has a band called Silver Jews. I always expected the group to be a short-term affair, because the band grew up too close a relative of seminal ’90s indie upstart Pavement and was labeled a side project rather than the country cousin it has become.
Silver Jews formed from the remnants of Charlottesville band Ectoslavia, while Berman, Bob Nastanovich, and Pavement’s Steve Malkmus were attending the University of Virginia. In 1989, they were recording songs on strangers’ answering machines from their Hoboken apartment. Pavement’s first singles came out in 1989; the Jews’ first 7-inch, Dime Map of the Reef, in 1991. The Jews continued sporadically, making The Arizona Record in 1993. A year later, after spending a summer in an Oxford, Miss., cabin, Berman recorded Starlite Walker with the regulars in Memphis. Next came The Natural Bridge, in 1996, made only after Berman had rehearsed with Malkmus and realized that “there was not a place for him to get into the songs,” he says on the telephone from New York. “It’s a sad record, and it was a sad time in my life.” Musicians from Northampton, Mass., the band’s temporary home base, joined him, but there obviously wasn’t room for them, either. His intensely private lyrics and pothead singing style never established a good relationship with the rock behind him.
Until now, it wasn’t clear that the “Joos” could succeed at anything other than the brilliant, off-the-cuff mess of their early efforts, or in a single swoop inject the ailing subgenre of “slacker rock” with substance and life.
One night recently, the Jews’ Michael Fellows advised me to “ask Dave about the New Openness.” I never did, but I think I get the idea: American Water has a warm, inviting feel. It sounds like a couple of smart buddies sharing a joint in an apartment, strumming and riffing and one-upping each other with each observation. Berman naturally usurps the role of storyteller. It’s the sound of the too-laid-back lo-fi set finally bringing their prodigious talents to bear. Though the band was once crudely described as Gram Parsons fronting the Pixies, the Jews of American Water play a hybrid of off-kilter, country-influenced rock that’s decidedly indie, but remarkable for its rich lyricism.
Berman wrote American Water as a journey. He “left home and traveled around, drove around,” and found that as a visitor, he was “always in sort of a social environment,” he says. “I’m very clued in to places. I’m looking for what makes a place that place.” Water is a travelogue, sometimes a sketch of a town and its fleshy characters; it provides “more doors for the players to get into the song,” he says.
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“I have this idea you could make a record and it would be like you can live inside it forever,” says Berman. “It’s like an old photograph; everything would still be in there. Songs are like rooms and houses.” With a headful of songs mostly written, Berman decided the songs needed “fellowship and camaraderie” and played them for his good friend Malkmus a year ago in New York. They agreed to return in a month to record.
Berman has finally made a literate album with the breadth that we fans always suspected he had in him. American Water is a haphazard, unhurried search for the real America, like something the Band or Dylan might have undertaken. There’s room at his pad for Everyman. Berman’s lyrics are ambitious and full of life. He layers stories within stories. Jokes, bar jive, science fiction, and would-be folk tales tangle up together. This time, he delivers imaginative hitchhiker philosophies. We meet a robot with “Windex tears” in “Send in the Clouds,” remember a lonely time with a “Buckingham Rabbit.” Our narrator is fascinated with the line dancer who likes “everything so democratic and cool” in “Random Rules.”
Sometimes, Berman shows a Catcher in the Rye preoccupation with falseness of experience: “We’ve been raised on replicas of fake and winding roads,” he observes, but, looking into the reflective buttons on his ski vest, Berman decides that, indeed, “We Are Real.” He’s a kind of de Tocqueville in a corduroy suit, enamored of an America connected or separated; its organizations, geographical separations, religions, and classes clash and reflect through the postmodern lens of rock ‘n’ roll. Personally, Berman is just as often an alienated observer. He wonders aloud whether the kids in Texas or Virginia are more free; asks who’s a stranger, who’s a friend, and who’s a monster in the Commonwealth; and then hitches his way to a “midnight execution” in Houston.
Berman recruited Fellows, formerly of Royal Trux, Air Miami, and Rites of Spring, initially to play drums, and then switched him to bass duties; he hired a keyboard player he saw playing the Beatles’ Let It Be in its entirety on the street (“he was like Liberace; we had to tone him down”) and a drummer from band Essex Green (“I liked the expression on his face”) two weeks before a Brooklyn studio was booked with Nicolas Vernhes (“he records when he wants to record”). It’s the most accomplished lineup the Jews have had. Before recording, Berman would talk to the players, “explain what the character in the song was thinking,” and ask them to “play as if this had just happened to you.” The recording process, understandably, had “an openness” about it, he says. “It wasn’t drudgery.”
Much of Water is mellow smart-fella rock. There are trace vibes of the ’70s, Berman says: “I hated rock music, thought it was unholy, evil. Foreigner, Styx, [and] Journey seemed like powerful presences. They crumbled.” The unconscious embrace of ’70s rockcraft, he muses, may be about “slaying the dragons of my youth.” Which is possible, he says, by “reinvesting the music”its textures and forms”with ideas and real-life treatments.” His baritone falters enough to remind us that this is “only a hobby,” however. Though Berman describes Fellows as “our secret weapon” in his arrangements, Malkmus is the consistent playmaker on the team. His vocal walk-ons in “People” and “Send in the Clouds,” and his subtly melodic guitar playing rank as the record’s real high points. Unlike Berman’s singing, Malkmus’ delivery is immediately appealing. “Steve,” an unguarded Fellows offers one night, “is a genius.”
It’s not until the end of our phone conversation that Berman tells me why he’s in New York this time. He’s getting alternative medical treatment for a ruptured eardrum. He got himself in a fight in Spain and returned with a boot print on his forehead. He’s postponed the band’s tour, but somehow, he doesn’t seem worried in the slightest. Hanging up, I juggle some lyrics from Water in my head: “I’m gonna shine out in the wild silence and spurn the sin of giving in.” It’s a declaration that Berman, feeling stronger, more free than ever, can stay out on the fringe, taking notes and reporting back to us for longer than he thought possible.CP