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A man of a few hundred very clever words

Dave Berman’s lyrics mix humor and gravitas makes and make the all-star Silver Jews a pretty special band. By Paige Newman
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“Tanglewood Numbers,” the new CD by the Silver Jews, had me at the first lines of the first song: “Where’s the paper bag that holds the liquor? / Just in case I feel the need to puke.” They encapsulate what’s so special about frontman Dave Berman’s lyrics — the combination of humor and gravitas that makes you laugh, and then suddenly shiver with the remembrance of the last time you were in that exact same situation. It’s humor, yes, but a dark humor to be sure.

Despite what you might think from the name, Silver Jews are not a group of old Orthodox men who sit around in front of the kosher butcher shop (like the one my grandpa owned) recalling the old country. Instead, the group, 15 members strong for this CD, features Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, bassist Mike Fellows (formerly of Royal Trux), drummer Brian Kutzer, Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billie) on rhythm guitar, Berman’s wife Cassie on guitars and vocals, banjo and violin from Paz Lenchantin (formerly of Perfect Circle) and keyboards from Tony Chow.

It may seem surprising that a band this big can come together without total chaos erupting, but Berman explained, “It would have seemed strange to me years ago, but that's how records get made [in Nashville]. Even the local bands use multiple players. The advantages are the same as those faced by a cook who is compelled to use a kitchen equipped with a complete spice rack versus another containing only salt, pepper and a bongo player.”

Despite all that talent, the band never hits the road. Berman, who’s also a poet, does, however, do poetry readings. “A poetry reading is not a fanfest,” Berman said.“In many cases, over half of the audience has never even heard your name before. They may come out of curiosity or to fulfill a class requirement. What I want to do then is surprise these people. Their expectations are so low that this is a rather easy thing to do.

“I dislike being clapped at by strangers, and at the same time I know that I cannot rise above their expectations like I can in front of the Thursday night poetry-goers of Midwestern U, whose applause comes at the end, instead of after every piece, like a rock show. Rock applause feels pre-arranged, a time for drunk people to holler, as the space between songs is one of the last socially sanctioned hollering opportunities outside of sports.”

To put it simply, Berman just has a way with words. He counts Anne Carson, Kenneth Koch and Mark Halliday among the poets who’ve influenced him. This shows in lyrics like: “I’ve been working at the airport bar / It’s like Xmas in a submarine / wings and brandy on a winters night / I guess you wouldn’t call it a scene.” The specificity is really what makes songs like “I’m Getting Back into Getting Back Into You” come alive.        

Berman described his sense of humor this way, “You don't want to err on the side of Weird Al Yankovic. The idea of being weird is as quaint as a gaslight lamp, of course. Like calling mental institutions Laughing Academies. I suppose that's an example of humor obscuring truth. I use it more like psychological realism. I don’t take pleasure in Ingmar Bergman movies or bleak music that aggressively exterminates hope, like Nico albums. All humor falls between Weird Al and Nico.” That certainly gives him a wide breadth to work with.

Of course, in Berman’s case, that humor also comes from dark times. He once gave a fairly famous interview with Fader magazine, in which he described his extensive drug use and a suicide attempt. He told Pitchfork magazine recently that he used to smoke PCP and crack, took Dilaudid and “nerve-soothing pills” and used cocaine — washing it all down with copious amounts of vodka.  It’s not surprising that Berman has become a bit more productive now that he’s stopped using. “I can write for longer and for consecutive days now,” he said, “In the past creation was more catch-as-catch can.”

The drug use may make listeners think Berman has traveled down the typical rock-star path, but one listen to “Tanglewood Numbers,” with Berman’s almost-Jim Croce-like voice and Malkmus’ rowdy guitar work, demonstrates that he’s anything but typical.

“My advice is this,” Berman said, “If you believe in fate, and if life has brought you here, to the edge of this sentence, on this Web page among billions, then maybe you should think about possibly buying the CD. As for the rest of you, please exercise your free will and buy ‘Tanglewood Numbers’ today!”

For more information on the Silver Jews, visit