When listening to a song‚ a fan must choose between listening for overall sound or listening for lyrics. Sure a good listener appreciates both qualities‚ and great songs contain both. But subconsciously‚ the brain gives most of its attention to one element of a song.
Turning on Top 40 radio today‚ it's easy to see that not much importance is being placed on lyrics -- more is being placed on finding a beat to "bring sexy back‚" or "superman that ho" to. But don't fret lyric people‚ just one listen to the monotone musings of Silver Jews prove that there is still music being written for you.
Possessing a gift for alt-country and indie-rock instrumentation‚ Silver Jews did not become a lyrics band for lack of musical chops. The ever-rotating (and yes‚ formerly Stephen Malkmus containing) lineup of musicians simply excel at subtly creating a backdrop for frontman Dave Berman to work his poetic magic. Berman‚ also a published poet‚ has made a living out of his brilliantly sarcastic commentary‚ which he delivers with a vocal range that falls somewhere between Ben Stein and the lead singer of Interpol on the excite-o-meter.
The beauty of Berman's music has always been that his center stage lyrics are accessible enough to create instant classics and memorable moments when he's on his game. But he simultaneously exposes his work to falling flat‚ as there are no meaty guitar hooks to cover up verbal mediocrity. At best‚ Berman is an amazing writer who I would sell my soul to be (ex: "In 20‚000 years‚ I've drunk 50‚000 beers‚ and they just wash against me like the sea into a pier‚") and at worst‚ I feel I could write better lyrics by stringing together rhymes from Magic Hat bottles (ex: "Jelly beans and cookie dough‚ country restroom on the radio‚")‚ but it's that risk involved that makes Silver Jews special.
Fortunately‚ Berman has proven he can deliver enough lines with meaningful urgency to make fans overlook a subpar track or two per album‚ but going into Friday night's show‚ I was a bit worried about just how much of that urgency was left. Despite releasing material since the early '90s‚ Silver Jews had only toured once previously (in 2006) before their current run of shows‚ and internet buzz didn't exactly talk that tour up. Bloggers criticized Berman for anxiety‚ reading the lyrics off a sheet‚ missing cues to start songs and laughable guitar playing.
To top it off‚ the band's 2008 album Lookout Mountain‚ Lookout Sea seemed to be their least inspired effort to date by far. Stocked with two-and-a-half minute filler tracks and a heap of metaphors that never really develop‚ Lookout feels a bit forced‚ creating awkward moments between beloved musician and loyal fan. The problem with Lookout‚ ironically enough‚ could be Berman's lack of problems. Berman is notorious for his past drug problems and ongoing depression‚ conflicted topics that dominated his inspiring early material. Recently‚ Berman has overcome his addictions and toured the country with his beautiful wife Cassie singing backup and playing bass. It might just be a coincidence‚ but the happier Berman seems to have less to write about.
Reservations aside‚ I went into Friday's show with a curious if not optimistic mind‚ knowing that I was about to see a rare writing talent perform. The six-piece touring incarnation took the Middle East stage donned in black and red suits (except for Cassie‚ who wore a red dress)‚ and I hoped the uniforms were an omen that they had their shit together. Berman launched into "Smith And Jones Forever‚" from 1998's acclaimed American Water and "Aloyisius Bluegrass Drummer‚" a lighting-paced song from Lookout with a salsa sampling main riff.
The first half of the show continued to mesh newer tracks with the old convincingly‚ as Berman's playful antics proved he was confident enough to leave his lyric sheets at home. The group had a few minor technical difficulties at first‚ and they did play one or two throwaway tracks‚ like "K Hole" from the 2005 release Tanglewood Numbers -- an example of a newer Berman song that never quite takes off -- but Berman kept things loose and lighthearted‚ taking time to tap a fan in the front row on the shoulder who was facing away from the stage until the fan turned around and shook hands with him.
The best surprise was how well Lookout sounded when integrated with classic material. The set list contained the better parts of the album‚ and made several wise omissions‚ leaving out "Candy Jail" and "Party Barge" -- the former of which has the maturity of a Raffi song‚ and the latter of which contains fake seagull noises in between verses. The chemistry between Berman and Cassie was impossible to miss‚ as the two constantly exchanged warm smiles and glances‚ but unfortunately Cassie didn't offer any backing vocals early on‚ even neglecting to fill in on songs like "The Wild Kindness‚" which featured prominent backing vocals by Stephen Malkmus in studio form.
The clear turning point of the show was when Cassie finally did start singing backup‚ because once she started‚ she couldn't be stopped. Berman seemed more comfortable singing songs with Cassie‚ and even the Lookout tracks became more engaging. On Lookout's "Suffering Jukebox‚" Berman sang of the "Tennesee tendencies and chemical dependencies" that made fans fall in love with him all those years ago‚ and Cassie helped him sing about "that one idea again‚ the one about dying‚" on "Slow Education‚" a revealing ballad that brought crowd appreciation to a high water mark.
Already satisfied‚ the crowd was ecstatic when Berman came back with only his guitar and commenced a three-song encore with "Pretty Eyes." The full band returned for "Tennessee‚" a romantic duet between Berman and Cassie set to the country twang of the rhythm section. Silver Jews finished on a high note by performing a rowdy rendition of "Punks In the Beerlight‚" the upbeat‚ distortion-laced opener of Tanglewood. As the show came to a close‚ Berman stayed and mingled with the crowd‚ talking with‚ taking pictures and signing autographs for anyone who wanted.
In summary‚ Berman wasn't a nervous recluse‚ he knew how to play guitar‚ and best of all‚ he had the showmanship to wow a sold-out crowd with high expectations. The moral? Never believe anything you read on the internet‚ unless it comes from State Of Mind‚ of course.
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