Her doorbell plays
a bar of Stephen Foster
Her sister never left and look what it cost her
gonna live in Nashville and Ill make a career
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. Bermans 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 Bermans
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. Bermans
voice strains and crackles atop simple chord progressions,
enticing enough even for a hardcore Northerner like myself.
But since scenes and labels dont 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 its instant
country song cause its in those guys blood,"
says Berman of his Bright Flight bandmates. "Ive
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 dont have any truck
with that, probably because we dont 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 Bermans 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 Bermans dripping in it. While his friend, ex-Pavement
front man and erstwhile Silver Jew, Steve Malkmus, has
gone solo and carved out a rock stars life, Berman
remains resolute in his lifestyle, refusing to tour, staying
home to write for numerous journals while preparing his
"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 its not
as good as Actual Air. Ill get bummed out
then over two years or so theyll 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.
Im 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 Im not a musician. Just a civilian,
and I dont ride in vans. (Poetry) readings are easier.
Im 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 bands 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 Bermans 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 Bermans potential. "They sound cute
to me," he says in retrospect. "They make me
laugh. Sometimes when Im visiting Bob (Nastanovich),
well listen and have a laugh."
After releasing the EPs
on Chicagos 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 bands 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 Bermans esoteric vocals,
bridging his straightforward musical approach with his
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 couldnt 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 didnt sleep for four
straight days. Couldnt turn my mind off. I was miserable.
Now it doesnt 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
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 doesnt 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 Nashvilles most
obvious influence is Bright Flights overtly
country sound, which including a pokerfaced version of
George Straits "Friday Night Fever" and duets with
former Papa M bassist Cassie Marrett on "Let's Not and
Say We Did" and "Tennessee."
it affects but in so many small and unconnected ways its
difficult to express," Berman says of Nashville.
"Its 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 theyre