- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2005

Silver Jews

Tanglewood Numbers

Drag City Records

There’s garage rock, and then there’s garage-sale rock. Both are proudly unvarnished. Both favor spontaneity over control. But garage-sale rock comes at you not just with noise, but with clutter, and it promises hidden gems for the patient searcher.

“Tanglewood Numbers,” the fifth album from beloved indie-country-alt rockers Silver Jews, probably wasn’t meant to sound like such a jumble. Relatively speaking, it’s the band’s most studio-centric album to date. Problem is, all the synths, fiddles and guitars (there’s even a string arrangement here) crowd out what’s best about Silver Jews: singer-songwriter David Berman.

Mr. Berman is no conventional singer, and the Nashville-based Jews were at their best on albums such as 1996’s “The Natural Bridge,” on which his wavering, talky baritone — it’s a crossbreed of Lou Reed, Tom Waits and Johnny Cash — hung out there in all its ironizing tone-deafness.

The draw was — still is — Mr. Berman’s lyrics. In addition to being a singer-songwriter, he is a published poet. Yeah, yeah — so is Jewel. Mr. Berman, however, is funny and, often, unpretentiously profound.

And a near suicide: In the interim between the Jews’ most recent album, 2001’s “Bright Flight,” Mr. Berman almost died of a cocktail of antidepressants and crack cocaine.

“Tanglewood Numbers” was made in that shadow, and it is shot through with themes of depression and recovery. Happily, though, there’s enough distance from the act to leave room for satire and drollery and all the other things Mr. Berman’s fans have come to expect.

Life is turned into barnyard allegory on the raucous “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed.” Still, life — or almost-ended life — is serious business: On the set-closing, steam-gathering “There Is a Place,” Mr. Berman speaks of a “place past the blues I never want to see again.”

How’s that for an advertisement for boring sanity?

A jovial jam atmosphere reigns over “Tanglewood Numbers.” Mr. Berman’s on-again, off-again collaborator, Pavement alum Stephen Malkmus, adds a host of ragged guitar tracks. Paz Lenchantin handles fiddle and violin with Tony Crow on piano and keyboards. Mr. Berman’s wife, Cassie, frequently sings backup and co-wrote the album’s languorous Grateful Dead-like tune “The Poor, the Fair and the Good.”

The album’s instrumental muddle is least annoying on skip-in-their-step country numbers such as “Animal Shapes” and “How Can I Love You if You Won’t Lie Down.”

Lyrical gems come hidden in weird juxtapositions, such as on “Punks in the Beerlight,” which asks, “Where’s the paper bag that holds the liquor/just in case I feel the need to puke?” — and then name-drops French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Or, in ingenious similes, such as on the breezily melodic “I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You” (“I’ve been working at the airport bar/it’s like Christmas in a submarine.”) Or in the gouging literary references of “Sleeping Is the Only Love.” (“I heard they were taming the shrew/I heard the shrew was you.”)

That Mr. Berman can experience the depths of depression and still come out with albums as comically affecting as “Tanglewood Numbers” leads one to think the universal Muse, if there is such a thing, is a painful bargain: Only the most fragile among us are privy to it.

I’ll accept my Muse-less end of the bargain on the condition that Mr. Berman agrees to keep living.

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