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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 
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+ Donato Wharton - Body Isolations
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+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
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+ The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea
+ Motorpsycho - Black Hole/Blank Canvas
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The Silver Jews
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Tanglewood Numbers
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Earlier this year, when 92-year-old W. Mark Felt came out publicly as Deep Throat, the resulting international shock had little to do with the particulars of his identity; it came as little surprise that he was a top-ranking FBI official. Rather, that sudden revelation was an affront to the assumptions we maintain about things that we can't explain or understand. There's comfort in not knowing, in letting mysteries stay mysterious. To take for granted the inexplicable for so long, and then to be confronted with the reality at its center, is an unsettling experience, like a little piece of plaster crumbling from each of the walls that we build to protect ourselves from what we don't know. Certainly, knowing the identity of Deep Throat will have little effect on my life, nor will it on yours, most likely, but we'll all watch "All the President's Men" a little differently from now on, I'd wager.

More central to my thoughts than 20th-century politics, however irresponsible or lazy it may sound, is the sudden influx of information about the formerly veiled and mysterious character named David Berman, singer/songwriter for the Nashville-based rock outfit Silver Jews. While certainly not as enigmatic as some other famous artists — his secrecy is sub-Pynchonian at best — Berman has remained a puzzle. It would be a real stretch to compare him to Deep Throat, but Berman, whose identity has been shrouded for 10 years in rumor and misinformation, is the closest thing to a Deep Throat that contemporary independently-released rock music has. (His artistic statements probably will not bring down our current corrupt administration, but you have to pick your battles.) He meets us once every few years, delivers vital information about our lives through his albums, and then disappears, never revealing his own identity.

Until now. Recent articles in Fader, The New York Times, MSNBC, and others have been cheerfully spinning the David Berman True Hollywood Story: a tale of modest beginnings, similarly modest artistic highs, dangerous personal lows, and reinvention through music. Berman's now well-publicized drug habit pushed him very close to the end; a vague combo of matrimonial devotion, Judaism and writing brought him back.

Part of the Jews' mystique was a lack of solid information about Berman; his refusal to play live or grant interviews certainly added to this. The obscure playfulness of his lyrics, and of the poems in his published collection, "Actual Air," does not give anything away. But now we know it all, and it feels a little strange to have the veil lifted. Listening to Tanglewood Numbers, the product of Berman's post-recovery musical output, isn't a revelation in hyperbolic critical terms ("A revelation!" says Gene Shalit!), but a real, actual revelation. Its themes and energy tell us more about Berman than any of the magazines have been able to.

From the opening seconds of "Punks in the Beerlight," it's clear that the primary difference between Tanglewood and previous Jews efforts (most particularly 2001's Bright Flight) is an enhanced emphasis on the way songs are structured, performed, labored over, and cared about. It's never mattered that Silver Jews albums have typically expended their best efforts on lyrics over melody, since Berman's singular poetry is so consistently evocative. Songs like "Rebel Jew" (from Starlite Walker) aren't about making sure the rhythm guitar is perfectly in tune; they're about things like religion, love and country. And yet, hearing an excellent band put his words into such an impressive new context is just as strange and oddly wonderful as a mystery solved.

A case could be made that Berman's lyrics here aren't as perfect as they were on American Water or The Natural Bridge, but the man writing the songs has changed since those albums were recorded, and it's easy and lazy to judge a songwriter on the strength of his previous output. Tanglewood Numbers finds Berman re-embracing a life that he'd given up on; to find fault in a couple of questionable lines is to miss the forest for the trees.

Anthemic urgency brings "Punks in the Beerlight"'s tale of "two burnouts in love" to rousing life, and the jubilant stomp of "Animal Shapes" is a far cry from the somber fog of many tracks from Bright Flight. There's a bitter country melancholy here, as well as a pervasive joyfulness, a pretty adequate mix for a 38-year-old's recovery album. Lines like "Andre was a young black Santa Claus/ Didn't want to be like his Daddy was" from "K-hole" dash any fears that drug addiction annihilated Berman's wit, and successful experiments like the epic-length cautionary narrative "The Farmer's Hotel" best display how well-crafted these new songs are (thanks to his back-up players — Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, Will Oldham, Paz Lenchantin, and his wife Cassie, among others).

All this change, publicity, revealing of secrets and going public doesn't feel like a stunt at all. It feels like Berman is embarking on the next stage of his life — musical, certainly — and needed to come clean. Maybe it was part of a 12-step, but ultimately it was more for him than for any of us. But out of this whole mess we get Tanglewood Numbers, Berman's most accomplished album, neither a return to form nor a radical change, only an affirmation that living is probably better than the alternative.


by Neal Block




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