Air Americana

Pub date September 5, 2006
WriterAri Messer
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Madonna and her scantily-clad kabbalah practice may have been ousted by the Russian Orthodox Church, but rest assured, oh ye faithful, the Silver Jews are finally coming to San Francisco. The band, often mislabeled as a Pavement side project, actually coalesced before Pavement, though the two backstories share a history of caustic revelation.
David Berman, guitarist-vocalist Stephen Malkmus, and drummer Bob Nastanovich formed the Silver Jews in 1989 while students at the University of Virginia. After graduation, they took the budding project with them to New York. Their music thrived in that city’s frenetic air. The band’s roster has changed continuously, but Berman, a heartbreaking writer and constant innovator, has always been at the helm. It’s his project, his voice.
Berman will be turning 40 in January. Four awe-inspiring full-lengths, a host of smaller projects, and a well-received poetry book (1999’s Actual Air) have placed him firmly in the cultural spotlight, often against his will. Berman is a recluse in some ways, a natural wordsmith — and instantly demanding performer — in others. He’s given the Bay Area numerous poetry readings but never a rock show.
Until now. Berman has been through some tough, emotionally trying shit lately, but he’s back, with the eloquent deadpan that has made him the envy of songwriters, indie philosophes, and music junkies everywhere. Longtime fans may call this unprecedented tour a resurrection, but Berman laughs it off. “I’d always planned to be a middle-aged performer,” he jokes via an e-mail interview. “This year has just been the run-up to the start of my contract with the Missouri River Blues Barge’s Menthol Topaz Casino.”
Waiting for a new Silver Jews album is like waiting for John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats to take the stage: everyone is ready to be shattered and jubilant, lyric by lyric, tune by tune. On 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers, the first Silver Jews effort since 2001’s Tennessee (both Drag City), Berman’s voice sounds deeper than ever, as if it might break at any moment and never come back.
The Tanglewood crew is rather big — 13 folks including Malkmus and Will Oldham — but that’s just how they do it in Nashville, where the record was recorded and mixed. Other Nashville-ized albums by the likes of Cat Power and Oldham these past years have taken some getting used to. Tanglewood hits the heart instantly.
Berman’s vocal duos and duals with his wife, Cassie, who plays a variety of old-timey instruments on Tanglewood, are organic and intensely personal. “Humans have been failing Human Relationships 101 for half a million semesters straight now,” writes Berman. The ability to perform back-and-forth vocal lines is “one of the many things you can do more easily under a band name than as a solo artist,” he notes. “Different souls are in the music.”
On “I’m Getting Back into Getting Back into You,” the Jews sound trapped in a psychedelic small-town roller-skating rink, needing to raise their voices to be saved. But maybe we’re all trapped. “I’ve been working in an airport bar/ It’s like Christmas in a submarine,” Berman croons. An ominous “om” sneaks in at the end of the tune.
Since their first recordings, made on answering machines and Walkmans, Berman and the Jews have been proving that our main roads are really back roads and vice versa. He writes of those early days: “Getting the tape back after a good performance was hell — first the breaking and entering …” Americana, broadly defined, is sustained by such neighborhood trickery. When Lucinda Williams revisits childhood gravel roads or Darnielle sings about hearing the screams of football season, particularly American landscapes reveal what we had always thought were private obsessions. Such artists gain a universal appeal by taking local scenes and spraying themselves all over them. It’s sound graffiti and it feels so good.
Berman’s current plan is deceptively simple: “To keep making these different versions of the master Silver Jews album in the sky.” On Tanglewood, “How Can I Love You If You Won’t Lie Down?” rocks hard but also highlights Berman’s tragicomedy: “Time is a game only children play well/ How can I love you if you won’t lie down?”
The Mezzanine performance will feature Peyton Pinkerton and William Tyler on guitars — Pinkerton played on 1996’s The Natural Bridge, Tyler on 2001’s Bright Flight (both Drag City) — Brian Kotzur on drums, Tony Crow on keyboards, and Cassie Berman on bass. Even the lineup gets Berman going. “Peyton is a descendent of William Henry Harrison…. I’m convinced that many of our country’s best electric guitarists are the far-flung descendents of mediocre 19th-century American presidents.” SFBG
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