I wish the ape a lot of success.
Stereo Sisterhood / Blog Graveyard:
- After The Sabbath ; All Ages ; Another Nickel ; Bachelor ; BangtheBore ; Beard (R.I.P.) ; Beyond The Implode (R.I.P.) ; Black Editions ; Black Time ; Bull ; Cocaine & Rhinestones ; Dancing ; DCB ; Did Not Chart ; Diskant (R.I.P.) ; DIYSFL ; Dreaming (R.I.P.?) ; Dusted in Exile ; Echoes & Dust ; Every GBV LP ; Flux ; Free ; Freq ; F-in' Record Reviews ; Garage Hangover ; Gramophone ; Grant ; Head Heritage ; Heathen Disco/Doug Mosurock ; Jonathan ; KBD ; Kulkarni ; Landline/Jay Babcock ; Lexicon Devil ; Lost Prom (R.I.P.?) ; LPCoverLover ; Midnight Mines ; Musique Machine ; Mutant Sounds (R.I.P.?) ; Nick Thunk :( ; Norman ; Peel ; Perfect Sound Forever ; Quietus ; Science ; Teleport City ; Terminal Escape ; Terrascope ; Tome ; Transistors ; Ubu ; Upset ; Vibes ; WFMU (R.I.P.) ; XRRF (occasionally resurrected). [If you know of any good rock-write still online, pls let me know.]
Friday, August 30, 2019
Part # 1.
Please note: most of the following festival report was written immediately after the event, at the start of August, but completion & posting was delayed due to mourning. I hope a touch or two of the post-fest glow can still be gleaned at four weeks remove.
Few a few years no, I’ve had a yen to attend the Supernormal festival, but sadly other life responsibilities prevented me from doing so – until last year that is, when the summer calendar was looking free n’ easy, but the fest itself didn’t happen. So, I was thrilled to have finally made it to idyllic environs of Brazier’s Park in Oxfordshire earlier this month, thanks entirely to the generosity of performing rock band Stanfield, who wrangled me a guest pass. Thanks Stanfield!
Eyebrows may have been raised in some quarters when Supernormal’s 2019 tickets entirely sold out months in advance of the line-up / programme being announced, but despite grumbles of cliquery and elitism in some quarters, the reasons for this early sell out became immediately obvious upon our arrival at the festival site late on Friday afternoon. The plain truth is: 1,500 or so ticket-holders plus performers, volunteers and shameless hangers on such as myself have Brazier’s Park packed to capacity.
By the time we arrived, the allotted camping area was already pretty much fully occupied, creating a treacherous labyrinth of overlapping guide-ropes ready to fell late night stumblers, and leaving us splitting the difference between tramping down a nettle-patch in the field’s far corner or scoping out the space surrounding an ominous, buzzing hole on the ground to which some helpful soul had affixed a homemade sign reading “WASPS”.
I should stress that, as with just about every aspect of Supernormal, things turned out great in the end and we all enjoyed a swell camping experience, devoid of chaos, discomfort or noisy neighbours - but nonetheless, it is clear that putting even a few more tickets on sale could have significantly upset the festival’s fragile eco-system, perhaps prompting actual pushing and shoving at the entrances to popular performance spaces, and tipping the site’s peak-capacity composting toilets and locally sourced but somewhat over-stretched fresh water supply over the edge, creating a potential hygiene disaster.
Many festivals of course find themselves wrestling with the tricky issue of upscaling as they build up steam over the years, but in this case, I wholeheartedly commend Supernormal’ s organisers for their decision to stay put, even in the face of greatly increased demand.
As I came to learn first-hand on Sunday afternoon, the Brazier’s Park site itself belongs to an “intentional community” (“commune” to the likes of us) which has maintained itself within the adjacent house and gardens since the late 1940s, promoting what for the sake of brevity I will simply term a set of proto-hippy ideals, which find an echo even today in the inclusive, communal spirit, “live and let live” ethos and admirably high environmental standards which characterise the atmosphere of Supernormal.
In terms of race, age, gender & sexual identity, subculture and social class, the festival was almost certainly the most diverse experimental music event I have ever attended. At any given point, neo-primitive, post-gender freak-flags could be found flying somewhere on the site, whilst elsewhere young (and not so young) parents enjoyed comfortable pockets of domestic, camping stove calm with their offspring. Divisions and generalisations based on any of the aforementioned categories temporarily felt far, far away. I realise this is Festival Cliché # 1, but for a few days here, it was nice to exist in an environment in which everyone seemed to be on the same page in the big book of possible futures.
Moving Supernormal elsewhere would not necessarily change this, but it would inevitably entail higher prices, more formalised security arrangements, more rules, more waste, more stress, fewer pungent aromas drifting cross the breeze, and fewer opportunities for young children to play perilously close to open fires (hey, it builds character, right?).
So… yeah. Just get in early for your tickets next year folks, and rest assured, whatever ends up on the bill, it will be good. Which brings us neatly on to…. I dunno, some music reviews?
To my great regret, I’m still trying to hammer tent pegs into unyielding ground during David Terry’s allotted set time on Friday afternoon. As a great admirer of the Bong bassist’s solo and collaborative work, I was very much looking forward to getting to see him perform. But hey, it’s fair enough – I’m not here on my own dime, so the timetable for turning up was out of my hands. Just happy to be here, etc.
Thus, the weekend’s music actually begins with Crumbling Ghost, who are holding forth upon Supernormal’s comically small (about 10’ x 6’ maybe?) yet impressively loud & well-mixed “shed” stage, as we sup our post-tent assembly pints.
I have, somehow, remained unaware of this group’s work up to this point, but their mixture of earnest Trad Arr English folk, malevolent doom metal thunder and unapologetic, Bevis Frond-style psyche guitar workouts is nectar to my parched palette. Though the combination of the genres and aesthetics they’re wrangling here could easily emerge as precious, cloying or contrived, the band walk the line with grace, rocking out with a gutsy energy that allows their music to soar and shriek with the Red Kites swooping above the surrounding fields, rather than becoming mere aural comfort food for aging white men such as myself.
A Fairport for the Baba Yaga’s Hut generation, perhaps? Well, maybe not quite, but I really liked it anyway. I’ve got their 5 Songs 12” from 2016 on the turntable right now, and, if the wisdom of recording ‘roided up rock versions of arrangements originating with Shirley Collins, Mike Waterson and Bert Jansch sometimes feels questionable, I certainly can’t deny that vocalist Katie Harnett’s voice does the business, or pretend that listening to ‘Omie Wise’ or ‘Swansea Town’ with additional searing solos and distorted crunch is anything other than an extremely enjoyable prospect.
A heavy paradigm shift next, as we drift into the pyramidal wooden “Vortex” building to catch London-via-Bristol (natch) MC Manonmars, representing the latter city’s Young Echo collective, whose sub-aquatic, perma-stoned and admirably multi-faceted take on UK hip-hop and associated generic terrain is certainly worth a listen.
The two DJ/producer guys lay down an immersive, massively spliffed out backdrop to proceedings here - loping, gravity-defying slo-mo beats, bass hits sinking beneath moss-filled swimming pools of reverb as woozy flute and wurlitzer samples turn to static beneath inches of dust. It rather puts me in mind of that ol’ cLOUDDEAD CD from way back when, but, thankfully, Manonmars delivers a far more convincing flow that that group’s nasal timewasters; indeed, he’s hitting up pretty much the polar opposite of the nerdy/back-packing clichés usually associated with more experimental strains of hip-hop, instead sinking waa-ay down into some ancient, stygian depths, fronting with the kind of repressed aggression and raw, evil-eyed lingo of yr favourite mid ‘90s killers (a youth spent deeply immersed in the Wu is evident here, I’d venture), but blending it somehow into the more anxious, self-doubting currents of the genre’s 21st century underground. Signature line: “I’m from London, shit’s CONGESTED”.
It’s potent brew; sonically, it feels like walking into the wrong dorm room and getting hit with a contact high that’ll knock you on your back, but there’s a weird, fearsome depth here too that demands further investigation.
Heavy duty head-nodding continues, along with the same ineffable balance of aggro and melancholy, as ‘underground’ hip hop mainstays Dälek headline Friday night. A long-running concern whose work I have, up to now, remained largely unacquainted with (perhaps the Ipecac connection put me off?), Dälek is an intense business and no mistake. The blown out, industrial noise-infused maximalism of the group’s backing tracks somehow manages to convey a sense of pure, crushing sadness, even as they simultaneously resemble clouds of orbital detritus raining down on some desolate, nocturnal cityscape. Looming trees glow green and purple against the night sky as MC Dälek spits out twenty years-worth of tributes to fallen warriors, cries for post-human unity and excursions through the blasted hinterlands of urban America. This is heady, heavy stuff, reaching far beyond the aforementioned clichés of the reductive “alt hip hop” tag, and after a solid hour of it, I can scarcely do much more than trudge around a bit and mumble good nights before hitting the sack. To my surprise, I sleep well.
Part # 2 of this review coming within days.
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
Trouble? No Trouble:
D.C. Berman & The Ten Year Rule.
As I get older and my history of – cough – “musical appreciation” correspondingly stretches back further, I’ve found myself developing a Ten Year Rule for the purposes of wheat / chaff separation.
Many people, I’ve noticed, tend - broadly speaking - to continue to enjoy the same music throughout their lives (hopefully adding a few things to the pile along the way, god willing). In their youth, they will discover a bunch of artists or bands or sub-genres or whatever that strike a chord with them, and they will continue to follow them across the years, and find them rewarding in perpetuity.
I have no problem with this. In fact, I envy these people. I wish I could do the same, rather than tempestuously embracing and dismissing different styles and performers every five minutes based on inexplicable whims and emotional impulses. It’s hard work sometimes, let me tell you. Sometimes I’ll be stuck for an answer when people ask me whether I want to buy a ticket for some band that I’d rather drink battery acid than listen to again, whilst other friends are apt to scan my recently played records and retreat blankly with an “uh…. yeah…”.
I’m certainly glad I don’t feel the need to manage my personal relationships the same way I do my mp3 player anyway. I’d be a right unmanageable, duplicitous, affirmation-chasing bastard.
Thus, the Ten Year Rule. This informal arrangement involves me thinking back on records that I liked a great deal ten years ago, and deciding how I feel about them. If the feeling is good, perhaps I will even listen to them. Perhaps, in the best case scenario, I will not have even stopped listening to them (but this is rare).
If I still find these records enjoyable and edifying - if I can approach them from a new angle and pull new meaning and nuance from their recordings from my vantage point of, uh, slightly greater maturity – they have passed the test. Having survived a decade amid the rapids of my treacherous tastes, they must surely contain some indelible, undeniable good stuff, and I can be confident that they will stay with me for life.
The Ten Year Rule, it should be noted, largely applies to song-based rock/pop/folk kind of stuff. Psych, drone and jazz records do not need this kind of fire & brimstone treatment; appreciation of them will either grow and deepen across the years, or it won’t. It’s cool, either way. Likewise, more formalised genres such as metal, country, soul and funk simply abide. They either are, or they are not. They do not change, and for this I love them most of all.
For reference then: Richard & Linda Thompson passed the test. ‘Forever Changes’ and ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ passed the test. Everything Neil Young recorded in the ‘70s passes the test. ‘Nebraska’ passed the test. You get the picture. These are the records I will build my fort around, and defend against all comers, should they make it across the flaming moat of free psych improv and cosmic doom.
As it happens, I was very, very big on Silver Jews in about 2008/09, which puts them back in the ring to fight it out with my ears, Ten Year Rule style.
Conveniently of course, David Berman aided this process by disappearing from view for exactly ten years, re-emerging right on schedule for what we now know was a horrifically short final act to his public career as a cult singer-songwriter type.
Most of what follows, it should be noted, was written before Berman’s death, but it still reflects my feeling on his work pretty accurately. At the time of writing, the messy, depressing and generally awful circumstances of his passing have neither endeared me to the parts of his catalogue I have issues with, nor soiled the swathes of it which I love.
2008/09, I should note, was a bit of a funny time for me, full of minor league stupidity and pointlessness. As such, the Silver Jews records carry associations with times that I do not remember fondly. Combine this with Berman’s tendency toward toe-curling public confessionals and self-mythologising drama of one kind or another – a tendency I am now apt to regard with distaste and uneasiness, particularly in view of its ugly conclusion – and, well, let’s just say that, on the surface of things, the band’s chances of making it through the gauntlet of the Ten Year Rule do not look good.
Such though is the beauty of the Ten Year Rule. Any roving, forgotten set of mp3s can be a contender. All they’ve got to do is get by attention with a good left hook, back it up with something solid in the gut, and they’re in with the immortals.
In 2012/13-ish, I found myself sitting in an airport departure lounge, listening to the sketchy, slightly naïve first Silver Jews LP, 1994’s ‘Starlite Walker’, and was deeply moved by the opening song, Trains Across the Sea. Next time you’re travelling, I’d recommend it. It’s a good one to listen to in an airport (and not merely because it had literally been “evening all day long” at the time of listening either).
Keeping the album around, I subsequently got pretty fixated on the strange, fourth wall-breaking, somewhat horror movie-ish song New Orleans, and could easily have composed a whole rambling blogpost unpicking its allusions and twists and turns (not at mention the creative disjuncture it reveals between Berman and his more collegiate Pavement buddies), had time allowed.
Actually, the airport is often a good place to listen to Silver Jews, I feel. So many of those Berman lines take on a strange, new resonance when you’re lolling about in transit in an atmosphere of enforced neutrality, subliminally prepped for sudden emergencies or emotional wobbles. Try it out!
As luck would have it, I was actually supping beer alone in – where else? – an airport bar earlier this year, when I received an email on my magic 21st century telephone from the Drag City mailing list, announcing David Berman’s return with the Purple Mountains record. Streaming the proffered lead track through headphones, I made the mistake of treating the exceptionally downbeat lyrics with far more irony than we now realise their author had intended, and found myself somewhat won over by the rich, whisky-soaked character of our hero’s voice, and cheery, country-rock caste of the accompanying tune (tad over-produced tho, but never mind).
Overjoyed, I was inspired to wander around the departure lounge for a good half hour, ducking those luggage carts with the flashing lights and listening once again to my favourite Silver Jews album (see below). It worked a treat. I found so much it it that I had never previously considered. The band’s chances in the big ten-year bout were suddenly looking considerably brighter.
The album in question of course was Berman’s second under the Silver Jews name, 1996’s ‘The Natural Bridge’, and you know what? Upon reflection, it doesn’t merely “stand up well” or some crap like that; approaching it cold, emotional baggage checked at the door, it is an absolute, 24 carat masterpiece – a statement in sound as complete and timeless as any of the untouchable, classic rock singer-songwriter holy-of-holys you’d care to name. Seriously - front to back, whether considered as a collection of songs or a unified entity, it is just great.
The leap forward from ‘Starlite Walker’ here is vast. That earlier record retained the feel of Berman simply mucking around with his college buddies, giggling over football trivia and long forgotten indie-boy in-jokes as they jammed away a few afternoons; its intermittent moments of poetry emerging despite rather than through the circumstances of its recording.
On ‘Natural Bridge’ though, Berman’s lyrical / poetic ambitions are front and centre as he gives the orders to a coterie of essentially anonymous backing musicians. For the first time, he doesn’t have to hold back for fear of embarrassing himself in front of his college pals, and the results, simply put, are astounding.
The opening trio of How to Rent a Room, Pet Politics and Black & Brown Shoes largely set the blue-print for the kind of sardonic, aphorism-filled rambles through the realm of literary-poetic evasion tactics that would come to define Silver Jews for most listeners, but whilst I would contest that they deliver on the promise of this formula more perfectly than anything Berman recorded subsequently, they also dip their toes into a dark twilit netherworld beyond the easy pleasures of mere eyebrow-arching lyrical zingers.
One could easily listen to the former song a dozen times before noticing that the outwardly sardonic lyrics – rather queasily, in post-August 2019 hindsight - largely centre around the narrator’s fantasy of his ex-partner learning about his death and realising she was responsible for it, even as Berman carefully sidesteps the kind of autobiographical solipsism that would increasingly characterise his later output.
The disconcerting, room sound-drenched crepuscular drift of ‘Pet Politics’ meanwhile swings even darker, breaking through the curtains of its predecessor’s vague, break up-related ruminations, forcibly shaking listeners out of their indie-rock complacency, introducing them to something else entirely;
“Adam was not the first man
Though the bible tells us so
There was one who came before him
Whose name we do not know
He also lived in the garden
But he had no mouth or eyes
One day Adam came to kill him
And he died beneath these skies”
Beat that, Leonard Cohen. Whether this heretical twist on the creation myth was somehow drawn from Berman’s apparent interest in Talmudic tales and parables, or whether he just pulled it straight from his fevered brain whilst in search of some good rhymes, who knows, but it certainly does a good job of setting the tone for what follows.
As the album progresses, the range of Berman’s lyrical trapeze act becomes broader and more audacious - and frequently more disturbing too. As the gentle humour of the earlier cuts blackens and burns to a crisp, the effect he and his band achieve on central tracks like Dallas and Albermarle Station leaves me entirely in awe. There is a bleak, slouching immensity to these songs’ psychotropic vision of mid-American daylight that is impossible to trap within this kind of easy, critical lingo.
There are several things which I think readers unfamiliar with ‘Natural Bridge’ should be made aware of.
Firstly, as mentioned above, very few of the lyrics on this album can be said with certainty to be directly autobiographical. I’m sure that Berman had all of the usual dilemmas and torments that defined his life hanging over him when he composed this material, but, like so many great artists, he seemed to realise here that, by burying the signifiers of his troubles within fleeting, third person dioramas, fictionalised projections of self and fragmented fields of abstract detail, he could hit at a level far deeper and longer-lasting than the banality of a mere confessional would allow. (Of course, I wish he could have kept this realisation more clearly in mind in later years, but… I don’t want to get ahead of myself.)
Secondly, I feel that, whereas detractors could easily write Berman’s songs off as collections of essentially fatuous two-liner puns and gags nailed together at random intervals atop generic, lolloping country-rock tunes, on ‘The Natural Bridge’ his trademark non-sequiturs feel as if they have been very carefully assembled, hewn into shape across years of trial and error, whilst his mid-verse shifts in perspective are used to create visceral effects – sinister ones, by and large – which reach beyond the scope of the individual lines.
“John Parker the Third, steps over a bird, on a Wall Street window ledge
Little Wilkie, dead cat rotting, deep inside the hedge”
- ‘The Ballad of Reverend War Character’
“We saw B.B. King on General Hospital
In the Oak Cliff dram-house where we stayed
When Clancy beat her with his belt buckle
We cleaned her cuts and then we prayed”
The deeper you get into the album, the more religion – of a more millennial Christian than Jewish bent, oddly enough – seems to intrude into these songs, with the looming spectre of some kind of divine judgement ever close at hand (“don’t you know, God stays up all night?”). During the records’s unsettling final stretch, these images build into a kind of apocalyptic fervour – an all-consuming obsession with The End, cut through with watery-eyed childhood / familial nostalgia, and expressed in terms both religious and secular.
“Bad roads, bad snow, bad bridges
Could turn a once bad man religious
If my kingdom ever comes, you’d better run, run run run”
- ‘Albermarle Station’
“When the governor’s heart fails
The state bird falls from its branch
Icicles on Hell’s higher hills”
- ‘Pretty Eyes’
Knowing Berman, this End is more liable to be a personal than collective one – self-annihilation, the end of a relationship, or of a way of life – but as the ominous feeling becomes ever stronger through the Beckett-like dead ends of the warped bar room jokes dryly relayed in The Frontier Index (“bartender says, hey, we don’t serve robots / robot says, oh but, someday you will”), the idea of a more tangible oblivion waiting to engulf the cast of fragmentary characters Berman has introduced us to across these songs becomes ever harder to avoid.
“One of these days, these days will end
The kitchen window, the light will bend”
- ‘Pretty Eyes’
Throughout ‘The Natural Bridge’, it feels as if the kind of unabashed sentimentality that plays a(n arguably detrimental) role in other Silver Jews records has been ruthlessly hammered down and repressed. As a result, when it finally breaks through on the closing Pretty Eyes, the effect is devastating. You can almost see the orange glow of a ‘Miracle Mile’ nuclear conflagration appearing on the horizon over the sedate family ranch house that the lyrics of the album’s final songs keep obsessively returning to, as Berman signs off, “final words are so hard to devise / I promise I’ll always remember, your pretty eyes”.
As the CD player whirs to a stop (I don’t believe I’ve ever even seen a copy of this on vinyl – we're deep in 1996 here folks), you may be apt to think back to the lines which, delivered in a far more flippant, good-humoured tone of voice, opened the album some forty odd minutes earlier: “you know I don’t really want to die / I only want to die in your eyes”.
Yeah, that’s right – the fucker only went and made this album circular. Some kind of Mobius strip of phantasmagorical Pan-American despair – every i dotted, every t crossed. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Of course, it is only now, returning to the album again, that I begin to notice just how fixated on more common-or-garden death Berman was here too. From the suicide fantasies of ‘Pet Politics’ to the multiple fatalities of The Ballad of Reverend War Character, to classic zingers like “there must be a pool out behind the church / cos he looks so cool in the back of the hearse” (‘Albermarle Station’), I don’t think there is a single song here that doesn’t touch upon mortality to some degree. Even the otherwise obscure album title seems suggestive of a transition between life and death. Viewed from a certain angle, the whole thing starts to play like history’s most elaborate musical suicide note. We should be glad, I daresay, that it didn't turn out that way.
Before we move on, I also want to throw in a word for the production and musical backing on ‘Natural Bridge’, which is sparse, but exquisite. On the first go-round a decade ago, I largely dismissed the music here as a kind of utilitarian, deliberately unobtrusive backing to the hi-jinx of Berman’s monotone wordplay, but upon returning to it, I can more readily appreciate the understated beauty of the band’s nuanced, alt-countrified playing, drifting and flowing like the tides and rains frequently evoked in the songs. (I’ve seen the term “countrypolitan” thrown around in press releases once or twice… I like it!).
Just those two chiming, clean-toned guitars playing off each other, big room reverb, and some deceptively simple, rolling rhythm-playing keeping everyone on their toes, Berman’s own soft, unsteady acoustic (perhaps drafted in from some solo demos?) drifting in and out of the tracks here and there – that’s all that’s needed. Throw in an occasional gesture of jarring experimentalism (ominous static creeping into ‘Pet Politics’, a “malfunctioning robot” noise solo on ‘The Frontier Index’), and this is a great production which serves the song-writing perfectly. The album’s instrumental cut, The Right to Remain Silent, which I often used to skip through in the past, now feels a highlight.
Much to my chagrin, it is ‘American Water’, the 1998 follow-up to ‘Natural Bridge’, which seems to have become enshrined as Thee Classic Silver Jews Album. Personally however, I’ve never really warmed to it, perhaps simply because I’m so fixated on its predecessor. For me, it has that kind of ‘overreaching-follow-up-to-a-classic’ feel about it. You know, one of those records that seems on first glance to give people MORE of all the stuff that made the previous album such a hit, but somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. (T Rex’s ‘The Slider’ or Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ both spring to mind as text-book examples of this phenomenon.)
As with those records, there are some excellent songs on here, of course - Buckingham Rabbit and Smith & Jones Forever in particular are favourites of mine, both absolute highlights of the band’s catalogue, and closing track The Wild Kindness remains sublime.
Elsewhere though, Berman’s writing feels less cohesive this time around, veering closer to the louche assemblages of smart alec couplets that my hypothetical detractors were mentioning earlier, and, although guest star Stephen Malkmus adds some beautifully lyrical guitar solos to the album’s best songs, his over-bearing presence on these recordings frequently proves detrimental, dragging us toward the same indecisive doldrums that were blighting Pavement’s output at around this time, making sprawling, jam-happy tracks like ‘Federal Dust’ and ‘Blue Arrangements’ feel like a chore to sit through. (“‘American Water’ isn’t a Pavement album, but it could play one on TV,” I think I recall reading in a review somewhere.)
Significantly, ‘American Water’ also has the distinction of containing the first Silver Jews song which I absolutely cannot stand to sit through (‘Honk If You’re Lonely’), marking the emergence of the particular strain of cartoon-ish, sing-song self-pity which would sadly go on to make Berman’s 21st century work more difficult to fully get behind.
Which brings us neatly onto 2001’s ‘Bright Flight’, an album which I remember caning relentlessly for a couple of months in 2008, but which now resides comfortably within the “battery acid instead please” category of my music library.
Apparently recorded deep within an abyss of severe substance abuse issues and a set of dizzying highs and lows in Berman’s personal life which culminated in a bizarrely dramatic suicide attempt in 2002, a quick skim through the album confirms my worst fears. It is indeed a tough listen in 2019… and not in a good way, either. Full of wide-eyed, faux-naïve pleas to the writer’s lady love, the album’s moments of jaunty humour feel desperate, whilst its corresponding stretches of k-hole desperation sound like a joke, setting a pattern that subsequent albums would struggle to overcome.
More than anything, ‘Bright Flight’ plays like an unsympathetic pastiche of a Silver Jews album, full of needlessly obscure lyrical convulsions, insincere emotional hand-wringing and morbid metaphysical pronouncements. Even the sound, Disneyfied and EQed to within an inch of its life, is fucking ugly compared to the unadorned room sound of the earlier records, as indeed is the cruddy polaroid sofa pictured on the cover (like, yeah, lo-fi, man). Just say no, kids.
After this, the two Silver Jews “comeback” albums, ‘Tanglewood Numbers’ (2005) and ‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’ (2008) feel like dictionary definitions of “mixed bag”, interspersing songs which delight me beyond all measure with others which irk me so much I can’t even stand to share a room with them.
Chiefly I think, these two “happy” (in heavy inverted commas) Jews albums are noteworthy for introducing the world to Berman’s previously unsuspected talent as a writer of comedy songs, revelling in a sense of absurdist whimsy that, allowing for a transatlantic cultural translation, wouldn’t have been out of place on a Vivian Stanshall record.
Of the two albums, ‘Tanglewood..’ holds up the best, with only a handful of songs I feel compelled to skip through, including, ironically, ‘Punks in the Beerlight’, the first Silver Jews song which ever grabbed my attention. A chest-beating, cod-Springsteen pre-fab “anthem” for the Pitchfork crowd, it’s romantic celebration of drug abuse now strikes me as woefully ill-conceived.
Aside from that and a couple of other unedifying clunkers on the first side however, the rest of this album remains pretty great. To my surprise, the frantic Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed is still an absolute joy, every couplet a LOL-worthy wonder (“happiness won’t leave me alone says a bird in a nest / get a load of this fucking view, it’s the best in the west”), enhanced no end by the perfect timing of Berman’s slurred, shambolic delivery.
The understated calm of I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You meanwhile sets the blueprint for what a “happy” Silver Jews song could and should have sounded like in a world that no longer needed those inverted commas, and has the distinction of featuring perhaps my single all-time favourite Berman stanza;
“I’ve been working at the airport bar
It’s like Christmas on a submarine
Wings and brandy on a winter’s night
You wouldn’t really call it a scene”
Sadly, we must now conclude that that world without the commas never really became a reality, but here more than anywhere, you can hear bits of hard-won, universal wisdom and warmth creeping through the humour and eccentricity of Berman’s post-rehab writing, nowhere more so than in the splendid opening to How Can I Love You If You Won’t Lie Down;
“Fast cars, fine ass
These things will pass
They won’t get more profound
Time is a game only children play well
How can I love you if you won’t lie down?”
At this point friends, I challenge you to deny that this man was touched by a certain amount of genius.
I don’t intend this piece to be a teary-eyed tribute when I started writing it, but spending some time reacquainting myself with ‘Tanglewood Numbers’ makes me feel like turning it into one.
In the context of what now seems certain to be filed away by posterity as a life blighted by depression, addiction and wasted potential, it’s difficult not to shed a tear upon hearing Berman sounding calm and reflective as that aforementioned bird in its nest on Sleeping is the Only Love;
“Lately I’ve come to find
Life is sweeter than Jewish wine
Give a box of candy or a foot massage
Some people don’t take the time”
All that, and we haven’t even got to the looming horrors of The Farmers Hotel. Another one I could dedicate pages to. Let’s leave it to speak for itself, shall we.
By the time we get to ‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’ a few years later (the only Berman LP to eschew the tradition of gnomic two word titles, curiously enough), the tentative happiness of the preceding album seems to have hardened into an eerie rictus grin, held in place largely by the twinkly preciousness of the heavy-handed, post-Flaming Lips type Pro-tooled production.
Like a porcelain-toothed convert emerging from a Scientology meeting, the album’s pointed positivity has a weird vibe to it – a feeling only enhanced by Berman’s insistence on foregrounding the presence of his wife (and bassist/co-vocalist) Cassie in the album’s accompanying videos, press and stage appearances, presenting his “true love” to the world as if she were some kind of glittering trophy.
I mean, of course we all sincerely wished them well, but… if ever a guy seemed to be publically setting himself up for a fall, y’know?
I loved this album when it came out (Stereo Sanctity album of the year 2008!), and whilst I won’t dwell further on what I now perceive to be its failings, suffice to say, it all just sounds…. a bit too desperate to be liked, to Keep It Simple Stupid and to entertain. An admirable goal, no doubt, but for a writer as quixotic and introverted as Berman, it can’t help but sound a bit forced, a bit self-deluding.
It is ironic therefore that the only bits of the album I feel the need to revisit ten years on are its out-and-out comedy songs.
The epic San Francisco B.C., as you will probably be aware if you’ve read this far, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. A masterpiece story-song for the ages, set to an impeccable ‘Foggy Notion’ groove. At a push, I think I could probably recite the whole thing word-for-word straight off the top of my head by this point, and the fact that Berman apparently never applied himself to giving the world more of whatever this is, instead leaving it an inexplicable one-off within his catalogue, makes me feel desperately sad. (Well, there’s always ‘The Farmers Hotel’ of course…)
To my surprise, I also continue to greatly enjoy two other relatively light-hearted trifles on the album’s b-side. Firstly, there’s the laidback Candy Jail, in which it is difficult to fathom whether Berman’s vision of confinement in an institution “where the guards are gracious, and the grounds are grand, where the warden really listens and he understands” is meant to reflect his experience of married life, his position as a sort-of-famous musician recording for a nice-guy indie record label, or just a wider comment on, like, life in Capitalist America, man. Whatever your preferred interpretation though, it’s one of those cases where the metaphor itself is outlined so appealingly that it doesn’t really matter what it “means”.
If my earlier comparison to Vivian Stanshall meanwhile sounded like a stretch, I refer you directly to the opening lines of Party Barge, an obnoxious three minutes of self-amused, throw-away goofery which, miraculously, continues to win my favour a full decade down the line;
“Father drove a steamroller,
Mother was a crossing guard
She got rolled when he got steamed,
And I got left in charge”
Take a bow, Dave – you’ve earned it.
For the life of me, I can’t explain why I still like this song. By any conventional yard-stick it’s quirky, novelty guff of the lowest order, but hearing the gusto with which Berman announces, “Ports of call! Day-Glo bait! Come see a legend while it’s still being made!”, backed my what basically sounds like a load of bell-ringing, horn-honking gimmicky chaos thrown together minutes before the studio kicked out for the evening, never fails to brighten my day.
So, that’s how the Silver Jews catalogue stacks up for me a decade down the line. As I daresay I’ve made clear, this has been a complicated test case for the Ten Year Rule, but the very fact I’m bothering to write this I think serves as its own verdict.
Against all the odds, this handful of troublesome, ill-starred LPs continue to mean a great deal to me, long after the appeal of most of their indie-rock kith and kin has fallen away – and, I would contest, they should probably mean something to you too, if you’re at all interested in the delicate art of writing songs with words.
For better or for worse, D.C. Berman was on a plain of his own; a true one-off. His achievements in the field of song shine through above and beyond all of the wasted potential and self-sabotage.
Originally, pre-August 8th, I was going to conclude here by taking the ‘Purple Mountains’ record to task, but I can’t do that now. I can’t even go near it.
How, as either writers or listeners, are we supposed to approach the shiny new opening salvo of a bold creative comeback that didn’t even last long enough for the band to begin their first tour; whose leading light barely even lived long enough to skim the reviews? It’s an impossible weight for a recording to bear.
I mentioned something earlier about ‘The Natural Bridge’ sounding like an album-as-suicide-note. Well, whether planned or otherwise, ‘Purple Mountains’ has become just that, and it’s not pretty.
Streaming the pre-release videos for the songs a few months back, the sentiments expressed in the lyrics seemed so exaggerated that – in combination with the jaunty, up-tempo musical backing and the videos which seemed to intersperse shots of Berman moping about in his suburban home with footage of him sharing a stage with his wife – I’d assumed the whole thing must be some kind of a gag. I imagined him happily back at home, deliberate attempting to write the most morose, depressing songs imaginable and to playing them in cheery, “triumphant” fashion, as some kind of quirky creative / cathartic exercise.
It was only later, reading this no-doubt-soon-to-be-infamous interview with the Washington Post, that the penny dropped. Was he REALLY living alone in a room above the Drag City offices, marriage permanently on the rocks, looking as if he’d barely got out of bed in the past month...? Oh, come on man, please say it ain’t so!
In the light of this, the full album, when released, was difficult to stomach – and after last week of course, it’s taken on a whole other terrible, toxic feel which makes it impossible to even approach.
How were we as listeners (and never mind all those release day critics saying “yeah, nice comeback album, 8/10”) supposed to have known, when this guy sidled up to us after ten years off the radar and started crooning, “lately I tend to make strangers wherever I go / some of them were once people I was happy to know” and “conditions I wish weren’t taking control / darkness and cold, darkness and cold”, that he was entirely sincere?
Shit, how could we have NOT known? Did I really just hear this man with a well-known history of depression and suicide attempts sing, “feels like something really wrong has happened / I confess I’m barely holding on”? (Sorry if that's a misquote, I’m not going back to double-check.)
A cry for help, a final ‘fuck you’, a sincere attempt at soul-bearing or a doomed attempt to ‘deal’? What were these songs when he recorded them, and what are they now? How are we to possibly understand this thing in years to come?
Maybe in another ten years, I’ll be able to go near it and figure something out.
For now, all I’m able to do is go back nearly fifteen years, to closing song (more of hand-on-heart spoken confession / statement of intent kind of a thing, really) from ‘Tanglewood Numbers’, in which a post-rehab, on-the-upswing Berman told us, “there is a place beyond the blues I never want to see again” - and then experience a very hollow feeling inside.
Thursday, August 08, 2019
(1967 – 2019)
God. I only just heard.
In spare half hours recently, I’ve been pulling together a long, rambling blog post laying out my mixed feelings about David Berman and Silver Jews, to sort of contextualise a brief discussion of his recent ‘Purple Mountains’ record. So, I’ve been listening to and thinking about his stuff a great deal, for better or for worse.
All that’s out of the window now of course, but there were some heart-felt words in there I hope, so I’ll try to rake it over with this awful new knowledge, see where it goes and get back to you.
As with so much of his later output, it’s difficult to tell whether the Purple Mountains record represents a troubled man desperately trying to sound cheerful, or a happy man trying to sound troubled, and this uncertainly lent it an unpalatable whiff of insincerity on pre-8th August spins…. but I guess he’s given us a pretty irrefutable answer now.
Basically, I fear there is precious little room here for hope, or serenity, or closure, or whatever the good feeling you’re supposed to have when looking back on the legacies of people who have died is. This is nasty, unplanned, improper. Ghastly in the strictest sense. The new record has a few fleeting breaths of wisdom, grace and charm about it, but they are suffocated by a pall of ugly, clown-ish self-pity most unbecoming for a gentleman of his age, which I did not feel should be encouraged. For an artist who liked to unpack his life story in public every few years, it makes for a weird and terrible epitaph.
Berman was an incredible talent, perhaps the single best lyricist ever to work in popular song, and some of his recordings remain close to me always. For him to go out this way is unspeakable.
What else can you say? I feel so sorry for everyone who cared about him, I hope he’s at peace somehow.
Chalk lines around my body
Like the shoreline of a lake
Your laughter made me nervous
It made your body shake too hard
Now there's a lot of things that I'm gonna miss
Like thunder down country and the way water drifts
When you're running for the door in the rain
Read the Metro section, see my name
No I didn't really want to die
I only want to die in your eyes
Grant me one last wish
Life should mean a lot less than this
- ‘How To Rent a Room’, 1996
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