AmericanA to Z – Silver Jews

As this series faltered to a grinding halt at the beginning of summer (which clearly now feels like it was about 20 years ago), the next letter up was “S” which provided so many opportunities it was difficult to narrow it down to one single artist. And then David Berman died and it became obvious of course. The difficult thing with writing about Silver Jews right now is that so much has been written about them over the last few weeks that it’s difficult to find anything original to say. Still, my own relationship with David Berman and Silver Jews began in the same place as a lot of americana fans in the UK – with Uncut’s Sounds of the New West alternative country compilation from 1998. That CD was responsible for a lot, and still defines americana for me in all its sprawling leftfield glory far more than some of the plodding conservative end of the genre which seems to be more at the forefront these days. And Silver Jews fitted into it perfectly – ‘How to Rent a Room’ was lowkey but melodic, full of memorable lines and just so, well, clever. When you look at what was hitting the heights of the UK charts at the time, The Silver Jews felt like a literary haven in a sea of candyfloss. And incredibly funny – like laugh out loud funny.

The band formed in New York City in 1989 and far from identifying as americana, considered themselves an indie rock band – the legend being that Berman was living in Hoboken, New Jersey with two University of Virginia friends, Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich and recording discordant tapes in their living room.  Around this time Berman worked as a security guard at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, which influenced their music, and despite the frequently used description of being a Pavement side-project (his other band), the two acts formed around the same time.

The band pretty soon became one of my obsessions. When I travelled round the States with my mate John back in 2004, we made a detour in between Washington and Nashville to see the Natural Bridge – a geological formation in Rockbridge County, Virginia, comprising a 215-foot-high natural arch with a span of 90 feet – simply because it was the name of the 1996 Silver Jews album of the same name. I loved the album after, ‘American Water’ (opening with perhaps the best opening line of any song ever) even more.

Berman was always on the edge of things. He talked only this year about the band’s name referring to “a Jew that’s not a Jew, really. It’s the outsiders to the outsiders.” His songs to me would always be the ones that made me laugh the most, that I’d put right at the beginning of compilations. But they’d also be the ones that made me feel most crushed and broken – the fine line between joy and tears ran through their music. His honesty about life and its rough edges reminded me often of my favourite US author, the short story writer Raymond Carver. He was political without being overtly political, just by telling the stories of real people’s lives, with all their sad complications. But there were moments of ironic joy too –  ‘Honk if You’re Lonely Tonight‘ just one example that immediately springs to mind – that had a wry optimism to them.

Deaths in popular music always make you feel old – particularly people who’ve been around your whole life. But David Berman’s death felt much more intimate to me – he felt like one of ours. Ours in the sense of the americana community but ours too in the sense of being damaged but relatable, in sharing that knowledge of grief and pain which gives us a human connection.

The canon: The Jews released six album, the latter ones becoming slightly more esoteric as time went on.:

Starlite Walker (1994)The Natural Bridge (1996)
American Water (1998)
Bright Flight (2001)
Tanglewood Numbers (2005)
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (2008)

Key Release/s: ‘The Natural Bridge’ and ‘American Water’ were the two best known albums by the band, but ‘Tanglewood Numbers’ is perhaps their most accessible “pop” record, if you can call it that, and contained my favourite Jews song ever, ‘Sleeping is the Only Love’. Those Eyes.


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Author: Mark Whitfield

Mark Whitfield has been the Editor of Americana UK for the last 17 years and still feels like this is his pretend job, mainly because it is.

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