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Tangled Up in Jews


Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers

Drag City, 2005

Rating: 3.0


Posted: October 21, 2005

By Laurence Station

Tanglewood Numbers is the album where Silver Jews mainstay David Berman invited insider fans of his work to join him for a recording party. Aside from every-other-album-member Stephen Malkmus and original drummer Bob Nastanovich, the fifth album by Berman under the Jews nom de rock features the likes of Will Oldham and players from The Jesus Lizard and Lambchop. This invariably makes for the fullest sounding record in the band’s catalog. Berman’s vocals (the key reason to listen to a Jews record) have been pushed back in the mix, more tightly integrated with the primarily guitar-driven instrumentation. Also, Berman’s spouse, Cassie, retains her second-vocalist status from 2001’s Bright Flight -- leaving Malkmus (Berman’s usual second singing banana) to focus on some impressive guitar solos.

But people don’t dig the Silver Jews for inspiring guitar work. It’s all about the words, and those cool Bermanisms that keep the (admittedly cultish) fan base coming back for more. Sadly, Tanglewood Numbers just doesn’t sport enough memorable Bermanisms to make it a truly satisfying Silver Jews album.

When Berman sings “Let’s not kid ourselves / It gets really, really bad” from the fiery, bloodshot-eyed opener “Punks in the Beerlight,” he could just as well be talking about the songs to come as introducing a tale of drug dependency, suicidal depression and possible redemption via true love. And perhaps there’s a metaphor about putting the pieces of one’s life back together buried in lines like “Where does an animal sleep when the ground is wet?” from the frenzied “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed.” But the words are steamrolled by guitar histrionics, thus dampening whatever deeper point Berman is trying to get across.

When we can hear the acclaimed poet speak, we’re stuck with clunkers like “I’d rather live in a trashcan / Than see you happy with another man,” from the unfocused “K-Hole,” or “With no bonhomie, he proffered the key,” from the seven-minute long “The Farmer's Hotel” (which is sort of like Berman’s "Hotel California," only without the great hook and dramatic finale). Those hoping for another “Pet Politics” or “Secret Knowledge of Backroads” had best content themselves with prior Silver Jews records. Yes, Tanglewood Numbers is the most musically accomplished album in the band’s catalog, but 1998's American Water rocked as well, and still offered a surfeit of idiosyncratically beguiling lyrics.

The closing “There is a Place” is the great revelation. Closing with the arresting chant “I saw God’s shadow on this world” -- it’s possible to hear the power Berman’s capable of generating when he serves up a standout line. Alas, it's over far too soon.

Possible clues as to where Berman’s muse might take him next can be heard on duets with Cassie, specifically the countrified numbers, “Animal Shapes” and “The Poor, The Fair and The Good.” Indie rock’s loss may indeed by Music City’s gain; both offer an airy, homespun simplicity that may not knock your intellectual socks off but easily gets by on genuineness and charm.

Tanglewood Numbers may signal the death knell of David Berman, Poet with a Backing Band, and usher in David Berman, Respected Lyricist Who Can Get Some Really Talented People To Record With Him Every Half-Decade or So. If it keeps him firmly lashed to the wagon and healthy, well, that’s a fair trade-off. Let’s just hope those earlier releases don’t go out of print anytime soon.

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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
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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