The slow but gratifying death of the Silver Jews

(Gadfly Magazine, Summer 2001)

Her doorbell plays a bar of Stephen Foster
Her sister never left and look what it cost her
We’re gonna live in Nashville and I’ll make a career
Out of writing sad songs and getting paid by the tear

–DC Berman, Tennessee

David Berman has a lot in common with Stephen Foster, the famed composer and poet of Civil War era. Berman’s first collection of verse, Actual Air, was a lyrical expedition that illustrated sparkling and whimsical prose, drawing critical acclaim and press coverage rarely given a poet. Yet, to Berman’s infinite frustration, like Foster, his true fame comes as a musician, a talent begrudgingly revealed through his musical alter ego, the Silver Jews.
As a hobby, David Berman writes songs with inviting melodies, lingering harmonies, saturated in Americana. His band plays a laconic brand of literate country music; tunes with a whiff of southern eloquence that would make Foster proud. Berman’s voice strains and crackles atop simple chord progressions, enticing enough even for a hardcore Northerner like myself. But since scenes and labels don’t interest Berman, defining the Jews’ music can be a slippery task. Their style lacks the trappings of the commercial or the constraints of the traditional, loosely falling under the pennant of alt-country. The Silver Jews new disc, Bright Flight (Drag City 2001), makes the strongest country argument yet.

“Well, you put that pedal steel and piano in there, and it’s instant country song cause it’s in those guys blood,” says Berman of his Bright Flight bandmates. “I’ve always written songs that I thought an acid-fried Alan Jackson could do, they’re just equipped with the ornament of C&W in this case. We don’t have any truck with that, probably because we don’t tour or promote or advertise ourselves. We avoid messy entanglements with other bands and scenes. We are fortunate for that.”

The Silver Jews’ good fortune, though not Jackson-level platinum success, seems to have done little to appease Berman’s antagonism towards the music industry and journalists. Occasionally, it seems that Berman does everything he can not to be successful. Contempt translates into indie cred, however, and Berman’s dripping in it. While his friend, ex-Pavement front man and erstwhile Silver Jew, Steve Malkmus, has gone solo and carved out a rock star’s life, Berman remains resolute in his lifestyle, refusing to tour, staying home to write for numerous journals while preparing his next book.

“Lyrics are like writing poetry in a form of a villanelle or something,” Berman explains when I ask him the difference between writing lyrics and poetry. “You have to wrestle with the music component. Writing poetry makes you feel like a pioneer needing nothing and no one but pen and paper… I wouldn’t want to wait much longer before following up on the first (book). Everybody will say it’s not as good as Actual Air. I’ll get bummed out then over two years or so they’ll slowly start to admit it’s actually better and only then will I try for a third. What people think means everything to me.”

As Berman busies himself with literary matters, inevitably, rumors of the demise of underground few bright lights begin to surface. In antithesis to most musicians, Berman snubs the pretentious habit of defining himself through his music, instead, downplaying the band as nothing more than a product, a commercial tool to supplement his promising writing career.

“Touring is sales. I’m not a salesman,” proclaims Berman, in what may or may not be a refreshingly honest stance. “I make records and have them put out. For the next two years after recording I’m not a musician. Just a civilian, and I don’t ride in vans. (Poetry) readings are easier. I’m not trying to please anyone. You show up with a folder and leave when ready.”

The Jews were formed in 1989 in what can be defined as a loosely cooperative effort with future Pavement band members Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich while Berman was a writing prospect at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. After graduation, he moved to New York City and shared an apartment with his musical sidekicks, producing a variety of puerile recordings that would later develop into the Silver Jews. Initially a side project (or was Pavement the side project? The history of the band’s incarnation becomes less clear each time you hear it), the Jews gradually became an underground success with a rotating lineup that was anchored by Berman and occasionally included Malkmus. Coupled with the success of Pavement, the unrivaled critical favorites of the 90s, and the rise of the lo-fi indie fad that included Sebadoh and Guided by Voices, the Silver Jews fan appeal began to grow with each release.

Forever linked to Pavement, the Jews actually have very little in common musically with their more successful peers. Despite swirling word play and heavy slacker appeal, Pavement were essentially a guitar-based band, leaning on distorted lo-fi functionality to unlock and alter the boundaries of pop music. Unfortunately, by the time Pavement released their final album, Terror Twilight, in 1998, the band was boring and obvious, basically playing what amounts to adult contemporary music. The Jews will never meet this hideous fate, simply because they never had any grand expectations to begin with. They just follow the whims of Berman’s poetic lyrics and minimal musical predilection.
It would be hard to predict the Jews’ sound after listening to their first two EPs, Dime Map on the Reef and the Arizona Record. The discs were spontaneous musical experiments that only hinted at Berman’s potential. “They sound ‘cute’ to me,” he says in retrospect. “They make me laugh. Sometimes when I’m visiting Bob (Nastanovich), we’ll listen and have a laugh.”

After releasing the EPs on Chicago’s Drag City (the Jews home label to this day), Berman entered a graduate writing program at the University of Massachusetts and began assembling the material that would cover the band’s first ‘professional’ album, 1994’s Starlite Walker. Berman and Malkmus headed to famed Easley Recording studio and recorded a lighthearted album of pop songs that despite its highlights was in many ways more Pavement-lite than Berman.

In 1995, the duo traveled to Memphis to record the follow-up to Starlite Walker. Berman brought several songs with him for the band to work on, but the sessions never materialized. Instead, he recruited new musicians in the summer of 1996 and went to Hartford, Connecticut’s Studio .45 to record The Natural Bridge. What emerged may be the Jews best album, a brooding display of Berman’s esoteric vocals, bridging his straightforward musical approach with his abstract lyrics.

“With Starlite Walker it was like ‘can we do this?’ And it was fun trying. Our expectations were so low that anything that took the shape of an album would have been enough. I guess I was 26 or 27, but it sounds much more youthful to me. Natural Bridge is another story. I couldn’t listen to it for years. It was an ordeal to make. We tried in Memphis first, then eight months later in Hartford with a new cast. I had something weird happen to me in Hartford. I didn’t sleep for four straight days. Couldn’t turn my mind off. I was miserable. Now it doesn’t bother me but for a while it was a horror show to listen to. If someone put it on I would bolt from the room or practically rip the needle off the record.”
The Jews next disc, American Water, featured the return of Malkmus, a lighter atmosphere and a more confident Berman, who uses his buddy to enhance songs with intertwining vocals and guitar work, not overshadow his own talents. American Water was a critical success, but it lacked the introspective nuggets of The Natural Bridge. After the release of the album, Berman began working on his writing and disappeared for two years.

The Virginia-born Berman once said that he doesn’t believe in inspiration. It seems that inspiration has found him in Nashville. Moving to the country music capital from Louisville seems to have rejuvenated Berman. But Nashville’s most obvious influence is Bright Flight’s overtly country sound, which including a pokerfaced version of George Strait’s “Friday Night Fever” and duets with former Papa M bassist Cassie Marrett on “Let’s Not and Say We Did” and “Tennessee.”

“Well it affects but in so many small and unconnected ways it’s difficult to express,” Berman says of Nashville. “It’s not about living in a cowtown or a financial center, more like the angle the sun hits the earth where you are at and how persuasive your friends are at getting you to go out and waste time in bars.”

Trend-resistant and disillusioned, Berman keeps his future plans obscure. But anyone with an inquisitive eye can deduce that he derives little pleasure from the Silver Jews, particularly after the release of a new album. To his fans, it may seem that the Jews achieved considerable artistic success sans the conventional effort, but the toll is high for Berman. How long will the band last? No one can say for sure. But listening to Berman, it seems that the Jews ride may soon be coming to an end.

“I firmly believe that we are feeling finished with the band. The press hates us because we speak their language better than they do. They have slowly destroyed us though with the slow torture of their dismissiveness of the Jews in favor of the empty calories of Stereolab or whoevers dick they’re smoking now.”