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Silver Jews: Bright Flight

Drag City, 2001

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: November 25, 2001

By Laurence Station

David Berman has spent the better part of a decade utilizing the Silver Jews as a creative outlet -- that is, when he's not busy traveling the country, working odd jobs to support himself, and giving poetry readings. A wonderfully idiosyncratic observer of the human condition, Berman approaches each new Jews record as an opportunity to sharpen his highly stylized vernacular and present as unique a view on American culture as one is likely to find in contemporary music.

Bright Flight, the Jews' fourth full-length effort, was recorded just outside Nashville, and is fittingly beyond the pale of the usual Music City fare. Having stated that, this is as close to country as Berman's come, although he hinted at such leanings on 1996's The Natural Bridge. Bright Flight's most obvious debt to the genre surfaces on the album's lone cover, "Friday Night Fever," which originally appeared on the 1981 George Strait release, Strait Country.

Bright Flight and The Natural Bridge share something else in common: the absence of former Pavement merry prankster Stephen Malkmus.

Malkmus played a pivotal role on the offbeat, indie-minded Starlite Walker, the Jews' first long-player from 1994, and appeared again on the band's finest album, 1998's American Water. The seamless interplay between Berman's frank, laconic drawl and Malkmus' uniquely inventive riffs is what made those records so special.

Bright Flight, while competently played -- and, in the case of the lone instrumental, "Transylvania Blues", raucously executed -- lacks the personalized sound that made the Malkmus collaborations so special. Which can be taken to mean that either Berman preferred to emphasize the words on this particular release, or simply chose to go with a more clean, stripped down sound.

A little of both would appear to be the case. The language and stories contained within the ten tracks on Bright Flight revolve around interconnected themes of creationism ("Slow Education"), fatalism ("Time Will Break the World") and eternal love ("Room Games and Diamond Rain"). Musically the sound is precise, and to the point, with few ragged edges or unusual time signatures, yet is simply not as interesting as prior Jews releases.

Bright Flight's standout track, "I Remember Me," validates Berman's lyrical mastery by examining a pivotal moment in the life of its protagonist, making it significant, but for all the wrong reasons: "He turned to her to ask if she'd marry him/When a runaway truck hit him where he stood." The brilliance of Berman's thought processes go on to take the tale in a fascinating and completely unexpected direction. Eventually waking up from a coma, the man finds his girl has left him, having "married a banker and gone to Oklahoma." Using the settlement money from the accident, the character buys the truck that hit him that fateful day, touching "the part where the metal was bent," in hopes of somehow connecting with an alternate reality forever denied to him.

Berman pays a debt to history on "Tennessee", having a doorbell play a bar of 19th-century tunesmith Stephen Foster ("Oh! Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home"), and even offers a traditional, holiday-flavored track, the peppy, "Let's Not and Say We Did".

Though not as musically inventive as earlier Jews' offerings, Bright Flight reinforces David Berman's standing as one of the most engaging, honest and insightful artists working today. That alone ought to merit him enough sales to keep the odd jobs at bay between albums.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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