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Silver Jews

+ {Purple Mountains}

The brainchild of American singer/poet/musician David Berman (born January 4, 1967, Williamsburg, Virginia; the son of a firearm and alcohol lobbyist Richard Berman), he attended the University of Virginia where he duly bonded with classmates STEPHEN MALKMUS and Bob Nastanovich, names about to be associated with PAVEMENT. In 1989, abandoning short-lived group names Ectoslavia and Walnut Falcons, SILVER JEWS was chosen from the trio’s base in New York City, via Hoboken, New Jersey.
The problematic fact that guitarist/singer Malkmus and drummer Nastanovich had duly made inroads into indie land via their main aforesaid combo (here they materialised as Hazel Figurine and Bobby N, respectively), D.C. Berman’s SILVER JEWS finally opened up their account with the `Dime Map Of The Reef’ EP, in May 1992. Coming across like a sprawling DANIEL JOHNSTON, tracks `Canada’, `The Walnut Falcons’, `S.V.M. F.T. Troops’ and two others, were unsurprisingly, stepping on the cracks of lo-fi affiliates PAVEMENT.
Drag City Records were also behind the year-long-canned mini-set, THE ARIZONA RECORD (1993) {*6}; Bobby N had now become R. Nastanovich. Nine tracks in all over 24 minutes; which hardly constituted an EP by anyone’s standards, discordant duets by way of `I Love The Rights’ and `Jackson Nightz’ embedded earworm-like into the brain, whilst finale flume `Bar Scene From Star Wars’ portrayed days of a misspent youth.
1994 had been the year that PAVEMENT’s “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” had soaked up sales enough to splash into the British Top 20, so by the year-end, SILVER JEWS wanted in on a piece of the action via the Doug Easley-produced STARLITE WALKER {*8}. Licensed to Domino Records in the UK, the album’s off-kilter, alt-country styling bore at least a spiritual comparison to the likes of PALACE and SMOG. Berman’s off-the-cuff lyrics and dry LOU REED-esque vocal delivery distinguished him alone as backwoods pioneer in his own right. Although still in tow as integral wheels and cogs, Malkmus and Nastanovich had taken a lesser role to allow a wry David to express his blues-y inner feelings (e.g. `Trains Across The Sea’, `Tide To The Oceans’ and `Advice To The Graduate’).
With a cult fanbase already established through Berman’s part-PAVEMENT fellowship, the acclaimed follow-up set, THE NATURAL BRIDGE {*8}, was feverishly anticipated in some quarters prior to its release in autumn ‘96. But sadly, he’d earlier abandoned sessions with this alumni (and the SCUD MOUNTAIN BOYS), to rope in NEW RADIANT STORM KING’s Peyton Pinkerton and Matt Hunter (both guitars/vocals); plus keyboardist Michael Deming and co-producer/session man Rian Murphy. Critically acclaimed nonetheless, the laid back record featured some of monotone David’s most affecting compositions to date, not least the brilliant opener, `How To Rent A Room’ (equal parts off-hand cynicism to pained revelation), plus `Pet Politics’ and `The Frontier Index’.
SILVER JEWS supplied yet another masterful work for AMERICAN WATER (1998) {*8}. Alongside a renewed alliance with Malkmus, and roping in recruits Mike Fellows (bass), Chris Stroffolino (piano) and Tim Barnes (drums), the album floated through tracks such as the LOU REED-like `Random Rules’, the country-tinged `Smith & Jones Forever’, the guitar-gutting `Night Society’, the amiable `People’, and the one-that-got-away single, `Send In The Clouds’.
Berman wasn’t to return until late 2001; wife-to-be Cassie Marrett (on backing vocals) having replaced a solo-bound STEPHEN MALKMUS. The underrated and almost understated BRIGHT FLIGHT {*8}, was another to bend the country-teaser wordplay of the main man who’d morphed into something akin to JOHNNY CASH and the aforesaid LOU REED. And recorded with steel-guitar players in Berryhill, Tennessee, the intimate and wistful set contained the eerie Nashville-tinged ballads, `Transylvania Blues’, the politically-motivated `Time Will Break The World’ and `Let’s Not And Say We Did’.
If three odd years had been time enough for Berman to recuperate from depression, then another four years between sets implicated major reasons to his subsequent sabbatical. As it turned out, substance abuse and a suicide attempt on November 19, 2003 (by way of a cocktail of Xanax pills and crack cocaine), had blighted the singer’s psyche; and during the recording and mastering of his “comeback” set, TANGLEWOOD NUMBERS (2005) {*8}, a fire at Memphis’ historic Easley-McCain studio nearly destroyed the tapes. David and wife Cassie had spent a lot of time with a conveyor-belt of indie musos (including MALKMUS, Nastanovich, Fellows, WILL OLDHAM, BOBBY BARE, JR., Duane Denison, Brian Kotzur, William Tyler, Azita Youseffi, et al), so the intense worry of losing all his efforts must’ve caused added consternation. In true storyteller/autobiographical aplomb, typecasting tracks would be almost impossible to distinguish polar-opposites `Punks In The Beerlight’ and `Sometimes A Pony Gets Depressed’ from the witty `How Can I Love You If You Won’t Lie Down’ and the LAMBCHOP-esque `I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You’.
It was fair to say that Berman’s SILVER JEWS had not fulfilled expectations on a commercial level (compared to say, indie-rock favourite STEPHEN MALKMUS), so when the slow-burning LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN, LOOKOUT SEA (2008) {*7} received conflicting reviews, it just might’ve cut to the quick. Turns out songs such as the lonesome `What Is Not But Could Be If’, `My Pillow Is The Threshold’, and the equally religiously-enhanced `Suffering Jukebox’, had country-rock class stamped on their tails. David and wife Cassie had now added key SILVER JEWS affiliates to their growing legion of moonlighting musos; Tony Crow (keyboards), Brian Kotzur (drums ‘n more), plus Peyton Pinkerton and William Tyler (guitars). If wayward C&W patrons were not convinced of Berman’s talent, maybe VELVET UNDERGROUND old heads would turn for a freewheeling flirt about an ex-girlfriend a la `San Francisco B.C.’ – a classic.
The impetus to carry on in the music biz was less appealling to Berman, and although his retirement was a shock to loyal fans, friends and family knew just how he felt suffocating on the fringes. David was always reluctant to tour (maybe that was the problem), so turning his hand to performing poems and short stories kept him ticking over.
Then out of the blue, the pseudonymous/eponymous PURPLE MOUNTAINS {*8} album was released mid July 2019. Together with WOODS men Jeremy Earl (vocals, guitar, percussion, drums), Jarvis Taveniere (guitar, bass) and Kyle Forester (piano), plus Aaron Neveu (drums, guitar, bass) and Anna St. Louis (backing vocals), Berman’s moribund mope and/or wry wit echoed his halcyon days of SILVER JEWS, though songs like `That’s Just The Way I Feel’ and `Margaritas At The Mall’ were generally upbeat. His estranged wife Cassie indirectly gave his lyrics all the more poignancy, and in the heart worn `Darkness And Cold’, `She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’, `All My Happiness Is Gone’ and closing piece, `Maybe I’m The Only One For Me’, had possibly the clues to what happened next. On August 7, 2019, in debt to the tune of over $100,000, David hung himself in a Brooklyn apartment – a sad end indeed.
© MC Strong 1999-2003/GI&AD // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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