Crate-Digging: The Silver Jews – American Water

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Drag City, 1998)

David Berman is The Silver Jews, its guiding force and sole constant member. He’s arguably the master of the non-sequitur, which is appropriate as he has a long history with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, also, arguably, the master of the non-sequitur. Maybe we could get them to duke it out in a sort of colisseum, their blood for our enjoyment. And I’m talking for real – I don’t think we can let them get away with anything less than an epic sword battle. This non-sequitur struggle is to the death.

Question is posed: I asked a painter why all the roads are colored black.

Berman and Malkmus worked together as security guards at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. They’ve lived together, and in fact The Silver Jews started as a lo-fi bedroom project. Their first album, Starlite Walker, sounds like a Pavement side project – it’s hit and miss, and Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich round out the lineup with Berman. It’s an easy record to dismiss. The Natural Bridge followed with no Pavement support, and it sounded like it. Malkmus is back for American Water, and it’s the band’s breakthrough in a lot of ways. The songs are infinitely better – the musicians work really well together, and for this record Berman wrote his strongest set of songs. This was a fertile time for Berman – he published a book of poetry shortly after the release of American Water called Actual Air. I’m not a poetry guy, but it’s one book of verse I own. He begins the record with one of the most memorable lines I’ve ever heard: “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” Sometimes, I feel that I can relate. The song is “Random Rules,” and is a shuffly alt-country tune, the kind that has come to characterize the Jews. Berman’s downtrodden and tone-challenged delivery, as well as his Pavement connection, may cause an unfortunate lob of the “slack” word in his direction, but like its lazy journalistic use to describe Pavement, it rings hollow here. What comes across as shrugged-off songwriting is really a well-thought-out process, and Berman is a master of language.

Answer: Steve, it’s because people leave, and no highway can bring them back.

But it’s hard to shake the Pavement influence, and as a result, Berman’s songs, while nestling more in the folk/country vein, don’t stand quite as tall as Pavement’s post-punk-influenced brand of guitar-slinging indie. And I guess that’s OK, but Malkmus’s voice is mixed highest or equal to Berman’s on a few songs (“Federal Dust,” “People,” “Blue Arrangements,” and “Send in the Clouds”), further muddying the distinction of where one band ends and the other begins. It doesn’t help that “Night Society,” an instrumental, and “People” sound like Pavement B-sides. (Although “People” features some of Berman’s most obtuse lyrcs [although possibly worst vocal performance]: “I like to see a rainbow from a garden hose / lit up like the blood of a centerfold”; “The drums march along at the clip of an IV drip / like sparks from a muffler dragged down the strip, uh huh.”) Fortunately, the influence is helpful at times, as on the CCR-rock of “Smith and Jones Forever,” “Federal Dust,” and “Send in the Clouds,” the latter featuring ripping guitar, Malkmus apparently given free range to stretch out at the end of the song. So, in short, it’s all a country-western-indie mess, a gleefully weird road movie in reverse, West Coast to East, making it to East Virginia by dawn.

Question: Why can’t monsters get along with other monsters?

“Honk If You’re Lonely Tonight.” Seriously. Do it. David Berman has written a bumper sticker, a choogling little honky-tonk number that you won’t be able to get out of your head. “Honk if you’re lonely tonight / if you need a friend to get through the night. / Toot on your horn, flash on your brights, / honk if you’re lonely tonight.” Berman might hear you. If he does, he’ll drive over to your house and give you a droopy beardy sheepish smile and a hug, then drink all your beer and whisky. But it would be OK, ’cause Dave Berman would be IN YOUR HOUSE. Eh? Right? This song is Single of the Year, in many years.

Answer: Soi disantra. Soi disantra. They don’t want to.

Soi disantra isn’t a real phrase. Berman has in interviews stated that soi disantra kind of means “so called,” as in “so-called monsters.” They’re not really monsters who can’t get along with other monsters – the point is that they can’t get along. I think. And until Berman realized that he needed to get along with others and collaborate, he didn’t fulfill the potential of his words. He’s got a decent backing band here, technically at least the equal of Pavement. (Which isn’t saying too much – Malkmus is by far their most accomplished musician.) Still, I find myself shrugging by the end, amused throughout by the lyrics – something I’m normally not – but not really sucked into the record as a whole. It’s good for late-night stoners and meandering conversationalists. It’s passable if indifferently enjoyable – kind of a let-down after revering it for so many years.

RIYL: Pavement, Palace, New Radiant Storm King


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