Discographically Speaking: Silver Jews

That gasping sound you may hear is me hyperventilating due to the fact that the Silver Jews are playing in D.C. tonight for the first time ever. It's very exciting, at least for Silver Jews fans. Non-fans or casual fans are unlikely to be won over by the band's live show, but that's par for the course for the Silver Jews. The David Berman-led group is a band for its fans. If you have one of the albums listed below, you probably have them all. Once you get drawn into Berman's world you are unlikely ever to want to get out. Ranking these albums seems wrong to me, like picking a favorite child, but let's face it - most parents probably do have a favorite child. So I'll rank away, with the disclaimer that all of these albums are perfect in their own way, just like your brother who's a bit of an outcast.

6. "Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea" (2008)
After the emotional wallop of "Tanglewood Numbers" this newest Silver Jews album seems almost quaint by comparison. It's definitely the breeziest record in the discography, which isn't exactly a quality that I'm looking for when listening to the Silver Jews. "Suffering Jukebox" is the closest thing to a breakthrough single in the band's catalog and "San Francisco B.C." is one of Berman's best narratives, but I only listened to this one non-stop for a month after I first got it, shortest of any SJ album.

5. "Starlite Walker" (1994)
On a recent live session recorded for the best radio station in the country, WFMU DJ Benjamen Welker asked David Berman if there were any songs from the band's older albums that he doesn't like to play anymore. His response: "Well, you know, you outgrow some of your views, they become embarrassing. If you had to adhere to the things you thought when you were 24, imagine. And then you had to repeat them out loud to others." This is definitely the most indie-rock of the Silver Jews albums. It still sounds more like a fun time-killer by old college friends, lacking the singular Berman-led vision of future albums, but "Rebel Jew" and "Trains Across the Sea" set the groundwork for the band's developing sound.

4. "Bright Flight" (2001)
In retrospect, this is the most interesting Silver Jews album. When it was released nobody knew the serious personal problems that Berman was going through, but now that we know he was fighting serious addiction and depression, the overall darkness makes more sense. "I'm drunk on a couch in Nashville/In a duplex near the reservoir/And every single thought is like a punch in the face/I'm like a rabbit freezing on a star," he sings on "Horseleg Swastikas." Like many of his best lines it's funny, frank and a bit gloomy. Less funny is "And you got that one idea/The one about dying," which comes off as a whole lot more first-person than it did upon first listen. This album also marks the first appearance of Cassie Berman, who duets on the impossibly charming "Tennessee," one of the few bright moments, album title notwithstanding.

3. "The Natural Bridge" (1996)
So many of the arguments I got into in college involved comparing this album to the album I rank above it on the list. (Yeah, pretty awesome, I know.) Everybody liked this one better than "American Water" and was more than happy to tell me I didn't share that opinion because Stephen Malkmus didn't play on this record. Cheap shot. "Natural Bridge" has many of the best Silver Jews songs - chiefly "How to Rent a Room," "Black and Brown Blues" and "Dallas" - but it is the flattest sounding Silver Jews album from a production standpoint. Mind you, this is a minor complaint on a classic album. It's like finding a flaw in Barry Bonds' 2003 season compared to the few that surrounded it.

2. "American Water" (1998)
This is an album that deserves to have "American" in its title, and its cover with an open road couldn't be more perfect. It's a perfect American driving album, particularly in autumn. It has long been a favorite highway companion of mine. As Berman said in his marathon interview with me, "it's very sassy." You can tell a lot about a Silver Jews album by its first line. "The Natural Bridge" began with "No I don't really want to die/I only wanted to die in your eyes," showcasing a certain sense of romanticism. On "American Water" opener "Random Rules" Berman begins with: "In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection." Songs like "Send in the Clouds," "Blue Arrangements" and "People" are among the Jews' most playful and this album serves as the best showcase of Malkmus's guitar heroics, since they exist in the context of wonderful songs and not just as their own vehicle, as has often been the case with his solo work.

1. "Tanglewood Numbers" (2005)
To continue a theme, if you can find a better album-opening lyric than "Where's a paper bag that holds a liquor?/Just in case I feel the need to puke," send it my way. "Tanglewood" is pure catharsis, from that anthemic opener, "Punks In The Beerlight" to the almost-military chant of "I saw God's shadow on this world!" in the closing "There Is a Place." Berman has never been so emotive with his vocals and the band never rocked with such a purpose. It is an exorcism and a celebration. Cassie is also perfectly integrated by this point, serving as a great vocal foil on half of the songs. Berman's rough voice has always worked best with a higher-pitched counterpart, and Cassie plays that role better than Malkmus. I've often compared this album to Dylan's "Desire," which found Bob in an especially fiery mood after a long down period. That's about the most complimentary comparison I could ever make.

By David Malitz |  September 10, 2008; 3:26 PM ET Discographically Speaking
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Comments

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Yikes! No mention of Frontier Index and Pretty Eyes in conjunction with Natural Bridge? I cringe for this reviewer and the Jewish excellence that he seems to be missing! To forget them is to forget Berman's greatest achievements, against which all of his own work must be judged.

Posted by: John | September 10, 2008 4:10 PM

Give the new album another listen, sir. Your (granted, passive) disdain for same is akin to writing of "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga" for the same reasons.

Posted by: David | September 10, 2008 4:43 PM

I meant to say "writing off," of course.

And that artwork! I mean, COME ON.

Posted by: David | September 10, 2008 4:43 PM

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